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State bar to study judges' impartiality

Recommendations expected by June as questions arise over judicial elections by Lisa Hammersly | January 30, 2016 at 2:55 a.m. | Updated January 30, 2016 at 5:59 a.m.

The Arkansas Bar Association voted Friday to study in depth how to maintain the independence and impartiality of state court judges, citing a series of news articles about campaign contributions and state Supreme Court decisions published this week in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

"How do we keep our judiciary independent?" Jim Hathaway, a Little Rock lawyer, asked delegates to the group's midyear meeting. "It's worthy of a task force."

"I think the people look to us for leadership, and I would hope they will," said state bar association Secretary Tom Curry of Arkadelphia. "I'm not convinced merit selection [of judges] is the right answer. ... I don't know what the answer is. But these are questions this association needs to get in front of."

Gov. Asa Hutchinson said this week that he wants state leaders to study options for appointing appeals court judges rather than electing them. Arkansas elects trial and appellate judges, including members of the Supreme Court, in nonpartisan races.

The newspaper's three-day series of articles, which began Sunday, reported that six law firms that have worked together on class-action civil cases in the state are among the biggest campaign donors to the six elected justices now on the Arkansas Supreme Court.

The "Cash & The Court" series reported that Keil & Goodson of Texarkana and five firms from Texas, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania have contributed an estimated $296,000 to the campaigns of Justices Courtney Goodson, Karen Baker, Robin Wynne, Paul Danielson, Josephine Hart and Rhonda Wood.

The court also has heard cases involving the law firms and decided in their favor, the newspaper reported in its series. The decisions led to settlements that included millions of dollars in legal fees for those firms.

The state's court system also operates under rules and procedures that are among the friendliest in the nation for class-action lawsuits, according to law professors. Those rules help class-action plaintiffs and their lawyers win, legal scholars say. The state's high court adopts and maintains those rules. The series can be found at arkansasonline.com/cashandthecourt/.

Bar association President Eddie Walker of Fort Smith said he plans to appoint a task force of 11 to 13 members to "meet, talk, study, research and see what other states have done" to insulate judges from impropriety, or the appearance of impropriety, in accepting campaign contributions and deciding cases involving those donors.

He hopes the group would have recommendations by the association's June annual meeting this year.

"Time is of the essence," he said.

On Friday, Walker first suggested that delegates send concerns raised in the newspaper articles to a committee that responds to unfair criticism of judges.

"The articles essentially imply, in my opinion, that our Supreme Court is unduly influenced by campaign contributions. We have a committee that addresses unfair criticism of judges," Walker said. "My thinking, quite frankly, is that this is something the House of Delegates may want to refer to that committee."

Attorney Tony Hilliard of Pine Bluff said he had concerns about the timing of the articles close to the March 1 elections.

"I've never had any doubt that the independence of the judiciary is absolutely critical. That independence is from both money as well as the press, as well as special interest groups," Hilliard said.

Hathaway told delegates that referring the concerns raised in the articles to a committee on unfair criticism of judges "could mean we think these are unfair articles. I'm not sure I think that. I think this body needs to address the issues."

After voting down referral to the unfair criticism committee, delegates unanimously approved the task force study.

Courtney Goodson, who married Keil & Goodson partner John Goodson, is running for chief justice in the March 1 election. John Goodson also was among her largest campaign donors in 2010. Courtney Goodson disqualifies herself from hearing any cases involving her husband or his firm.

The state's current justices told the newspaper they follow the Arkansas Code of Judicial Conduct, which says judicial candidates should "as much as possible" avoid knowing the identities of campaign donors and information about their contributions. Several said they had no idea who their campaign donors are.

But national and state ethics experts said the public is skeptical that elected judges really don't know who their big contributors are.

And when public records show judges have accepted large campaign contributions, then decided cases in those donors' favor, that raises questions about impropriety, or the appearance of impropriety, the ethics specialists say.

State Rep. Matthew Shepherd, R-Union, has introduced legislation in the past to appoint high-court judges and says he sees "growing interest" in the idea.

Retired Supreme Court Justice Robert Brown, who supports electing judges, said the state might examine rules regarding campaign donations. It may be time, Brown said, for judicial candidates to learn their donors and contribution amounts so they can recuse themselves when big donors' cases come before them.

A Section on 01/30/2016

Print Headline: State bar to study judges' impartiality

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