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story.lead_photo.caption Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Rhonda Wood is shown in this photo. - Photo by Benjamin Krain

The Arkansas Supreme Court declined on Thursday to review Justice Rhonda Wood's decision not to recuse from a lawsuit case involving a nursing home owned by Michael Morton, a major contributor to her most recent campaign.

Morton also is one of at least three figures who have been the target of a federal bribery investigation that already has led to a former judge's guilty plea and prison sentence -- both now on appeal.

In November, Wood denied a motion by the lawsuit's plaintiff, Andrew Phillips, that she recuse from hearing Morton's appeal of the class-action status granted to a wrongful-death lawsuit filed by Phillips over the death of his mother, Dorothy Phillips. She was a resident of Morton's Robinson Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in North Little Rock when she died in February 2014.

Phillips in turn asked the full court, excluding Wood, or another neutral panel to review Wood's decision.

The court issued a brief order rejecting that request and gave no explanation for its ruling. Wood did not participate in the decision.

Wood has said in a court document that she returned $20,000 of Morton's $40,000 in donations. Phillips' attorneys countered that this refund took place only after the deadline passed for Wood to draw an election opponent.

Among other arguments, Wood said the Phillips case likely would not go before the high court before spring, allowing for "a sufficient cooling off period" between her campaign and the proceeding at issue. She said she does not have a social or business relationship with Morton.

John DiPippa, dean emeritus and distinguished professor of law at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock William H. Bowen School of Law, said there is "not really" any recourse to pursue the recusal issue further.

"There's really no appeal from this because this is a state law question," DiPippa said.

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The plaintiffs could ask the high court for a rehearing, "but those are rarely granted," he said. "It would be the same court rehearing the same thing, and they don't usually do that unless there's something new."

On whether stronger recusal regulations are needed, DiPippa said, "It's never really a good idea to think about these general policies in connection with a specific case, especially one that's gotten high profile."

Besides, he said, "I'm not sure much more can be done. Constitutionally, the branches [of government] are separate. If there were a need for [more] regulation, it would have to come from the judiciary itself," rather than the legislative or executive branches.

DiPippa said Arkansas follows Rule 2.11 of the Model Code of Judicial Conduct, which he said is "pretty much what every state follows."

The American Bar Association has been "thinking about revising their standards" but hadn't done so as of 2012.

Asked about the four years since then, he said, "The Bar Association, like the Catholic Church, thinks in centuries. They take their time."

The model code says in part, "A judge shall disqualify himself or herself in any proceeding in which the judge's impartiality might reasonably be questioned, including but not limited to the following circumstances."

The code lists several such circumstances. Item 4 says, "The judge knows or learns by means of a timely motion that a party, a party's lawyer, or the law firm of a party's lawyer has within the previous [insert number] year[s] made aggregate contributions to the judge's campaign in an amount that [is greater than $[insert amount] for an individual or $[insert amount] for an entity] [is reasonable and appropriate for an individual or an entity]."

The model code uses brackets to leave open instead of specifying what numbers or other information states should put in those brackets.

The Arkansas Code of Judicial Conduct has the word "Reserved" on its Item 4 under the section dealing with disqualification.

One of the comments on that item is also not specific. It says, "The fact that a lawyer in a proceeding, or a litigant, contributed to the judge's campaign, or publicly supported the judge in his or her election does not of itself disqualify the judge. However, the size of contributions, the degree of involvement in the campaign, the timing of the campaign and the proceeding, the issues involved in the proceeding, and other factors known to the judge may raise questions as to the judge's impartiality."

Attorneys for Phillips did not return phone messages left at their offices.

A Section on 01/20/2017

Print Headline: No review of Wood, court rules


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