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State justices respond to donation questions

by Lisa Hammersly | January 26, 2016 at 4:10 a.m.
Justice Karen Baker.

Five of the seven Arkansas Supreme Court justices answered questions or issued statements regarding their campaign donations and court decisions.

Photo by Staton Breidenthal
Justice Paul Danielson.
Photo by Staton Breidenthal
Justice Josephine Hart.
Photo by Staton Breidenthal
Justice Robin Wynne.
Photo by Staton Breidenthal
Justice Rhonda Wood.

Chief Justice Howard Brill, appointed last year to fill an unexpired term, has not run for office and declined to be interviewed.


Here's more of what Arkansas Supreme Court justices and former justices had to say:

Justice Karen Baker

Baker wrote that she has heard 28 class-action cases since joining the high court in January 2011.

Campaign finance records show her 2010 and 2014 campaigns received $66,000 total from four class-action law firms that have donated to Supreme Court campaigns in the past 12 years.

The firms are Keil & Goodson of Texarkana; Nix Patterson & Roach of Daingerfield, Texas; Kessler Topaz Meltzer & Check of Radnor, Pa., and Jason Roselius of Oklahoma City, who has been affiliated with several law firms in the past decade.

Others also have donated significant amounts to other justices' campaigns: the Crowley Norman firm of Houston, Texas, and attorneys Reggie Whitten and Michael Burrage of Oklahoma, who were affiliated with multiple firms over a decade.

Baker said she has followed procedural rules regarding class-action cases, as well as court precedents.

The rules governing class-action cases have "been the standard of the court for many years," Baker wrote.

Justice Paul Danielson

Danielson said he shares ethics experts' concerns about campaign money and judicial elections, but said, "That's news to me," when told that his campaign finance reports showed a total $23,500 from Keil & Goodson and Nix Patterson in 2006 and 2008.

"You may see a trend now, but that doesn't mean we could see it back then. I've talked to other judges. It wasn't common knowledge. It wasn't on our radar," said Danielson, who is retiring at the end of this year.

Danielson said he has no idea why the class-action law firms donated to his campaigns.

"Sometimes people support you because they like you," he said. "Sometimes it's because they don't like your opponent."

Justice Courtney Goodson

Goodson, whose 2010 campaign accepted $142,500 from the six class-action law firms, sent a short response to the newspaper's written questions:

"I believe that judges should be accountable to the voters and that the Supreme Court belongs to the people. That's why, as a justice, I take extraordinary measures to ensure that the extensive rules and guidelines established by the Court and the committee on judicial ethics are closely followed."

Justice Josephine Hart

Hart did not respond to the newspaper's calls or letters. Her 2012 campaign reported $22,000 from Keil & Goodson, Nix Patterson, Crowley Norman and Kessler Topaz.

She was with the unanimous majority in two decisions in 2012 and 2013 that favored donor law firms, including Keil & Goodson and Nix Patterson, court records show. She disqualified herself, stating no reason, from two Keil & Goodson cases in 2015.

Justice Robin Wynne

Wynne responded to the newspaper's questions through a campaign manager, Linda Napper. She said Wynne had no knowledge of who donated to his campaign.

His 2014 campaign reported $25,000 from Keil & Goodson, Nix Patterson, Kessler Topaz and Jason Roselius.

Wynne recused last year from two class-action proceedings involving donor firms. He did not state the reasons.

Justice Rhonda Wood

Elected in 2014, Wood said she has taken part in just one opinion involving the donor law firms, Shelter Insurance v. Goodner (CV-15-111), in December.

A five-justice majority of Danielson, Baker and three special justices found in favor of the plaintiffs represented by class-action attorney John Goodson and co-counsels.

Wood and Brill dissented. Wynne, Hart and Courtney Goodson recused.

Before the Shelter decision, Wood wrote in an email that her decisions in other class-action cases show she analyzes all cases fully and does not have any inherent bias.

Wood's 2014 campaign reported $17,000 from Nix Patterson and Kessler Topaz.

Her biggest donor group was the nursing home industry, which contributed more than $70,000 to her campaign, according to campaign contribution records. Nursing home operators in Arkansas also are big group donors to political races, including the Supreme Court.

Wood ran unopposed and returned the nursing home contributions, campaign records show.

Retired Justice Jim Gunter

"All of the cases I'm familiar with were looked at objectively," said Gunter, who retired from the Arkansas Supreme Court in early 2013.

He avoided knowing who his donors were, he said, and wasn't aware his 2004 campaign had reported $27,610 from Keil & Goodson and Nix Patterson attorneys and family members.

Gunter said his campaign followed state laws for contributions to candidates, including Arkansas' maximum contribution then of $1,000 per candidate per election.

A former prosecutor and judge in Texarkana, Gunter said he had known members of John Goodson's family for years. Retired Justice Donald Corbin was the only other justice who said he was a longtime acquaintance of attorneys or family members with Keil & Goodson and other donor firms.

SundayMonday on 01/26/2016

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