A Washington County circuit judge on Wednesday recused from a lawsuit filed by state Supreme Court Justice Courtney Goodson over negative campaign ads, after reports that the judge's wife had financial connections to Goodson's husband.
Goodson had requested the recusal of Circuit Judge Doug Martin. Martin agreed and issued a letter of recusal late Wednesday afternoon. But he said his restraining order against several area TV stations still stands. Martin ordered the pulling of negative ads about Goodson after the lawsuit was filed Monday.
The justice's lawyers wrote in a motion asking for Martin's recusal that "This election has been tainted by dark money ads and it is not the desire of [Goodson or her campaign] for the public to question the impartiality of this court."
A hearing -- originally scheduled by Martin for today -- was postponed while an attempt is made to assign a new judge to the case.
Goodson, who is in the middle of a re-election campaign, has filed three lawsuits, in different jurisdictions in Arkansas' largest media markets, against what she says are fictitious claims being aired by an out-of-state group.
On Monday, Goodson scored an initial victory when Martin ordered, without a hearing, several local stations and cable providers to stop airing the ads.
Lower-court judges in Pulaski and Sebastian counties, where companion suits were filed, have so far declined to take action other than to schedule hearings this week and next.
Election day for nonpartisan judicial races is Tuesday.
After Martin issued a temporary restraining order to stop the TV ads, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported that Martin received income in 2017 through his wife's legal work with Keil & Goodson, the Texarkana firm of John Goodson, Justice Goodson's husband.
Amy Martin was also a one-time contributor to Goodson's campaign. W.H. Taylor, an attorney whose gifts to Goodson were scrutinized in the attack ads, also donated to Judge Martin's campaign in 2014.
"It is clear that the public has raised concerns about the appearance of this Court's perceived impartiality in this matter and for that reason alone, the Plaintiffs respectfully request [Martin] recuse," Goodson's motion stated.
Martin did not respond to repeated messages seeking comment on both Tuesday and Wednesday.
While Martin's order will stand for now in his absence, others on Wednesday questioned the legality of his decision to pull political ads, however unseemly, off the airwaves.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas released a statement calling for groups such as the sponsors of the anti-Goodson ads, the Judicial Crisis Network, to be forced to disclose their donors, but it said the group's speech should still be protected under the U.S. Constitution.
"It's well understood that you can't get this kind of injunction without, as I understand, any real hearing," said Eugene Volokh, a professor of First Amendment law at the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Law. He called Martin's ruling "clearly unconstitutional."
The Judicial Crisis Network issued a statement Wednesday calling Martin's order a censorship of the group's First Amendment right to free speech. The conservative-leaning group is based in Washington, D.C., and has spent hundred of thousands of dollars in ads during this year's Supreme Court race, as well as other recent Arkansas campaigns.
The group's recent ads have focused on expensive gifts that Goodson received from lawyers with business before the Supreme Court -- Goodson says she has recused in all cases involving gift givers -- and a pay raise sought by the Supreme Court last year, which the ads depict as being requested solely by Goodson.
"You can't make this stuff up," the group's policy director, Carrie Severino, said in a statement. "Judge Martin should be standing up for free speech instead of trying to protect his campaign donor and buddies."
Lauren Hoover, Goodson's attorney, said she was happy with Martin's recusal because it would allow the case to continue. She noted that one cable provider in Northwest Arkansas, Cox Media, had already agreed to pull the ads prior to Goodson's suit being filed.
"Bottomline: it does not matter which Court, which County, which Judge, we are assigned. Name the time and place and we will be there to continue to fight against dark money ads," Hoover said in an email Wednesday.
The Judicial Crisis Network has also targeted one of Goodson's opponents in the race, Court of Appeals Judge Kenneth Hixson, calling him "soft on crime" for a case in which he and several other judges overturned a conviction.
Hixson has spoken out forcefully against the ads targeting him and Goodson, but he said he will not seek his own injunction to stop the ads. "It's a high bar to chin," he said Wednesday.
The other candidate in the race, Department of Human Services attorney David Sterling, has repeatedly denied any coordination with outside groups running ads against his opponents. None of the ads has been critical of him.
Information for this article was contributed by Doug Thompson of the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Metro on 05/17/2018
Print Headline: Judge recuses from justice's attack-ad suit; Order restricting TV stations still in place for now, he says