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story.lead_photo.caption Jim Wyatt is shown in this photo.

Judicial candidate Jim Wyatt should be disqualified from running for 6th Judicial Circuit judge, according to a lawsuit filed Friday that accuses the North Little Rock attorney of having three hot check convictions that are at least 25 years old.

The 6th circuit encompasses Pulaski and Perry counties.

The 11-page petition asks Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen to rule that Wyatt, the president of the Pulaski County Bar Association, does not meet the state constitutional standard to hold elected office and bar him from appearing on the ballot in the nonpartisan judicial elections in March.

No hearing date has been set. The lawsuit was assigned to Griffen after three other judges -- Chris Piazza, Mackie Pierce and Mary McGowan -- recused.

Wyatt, who is in private practice, passed the bar in August 1993. The cases are from September 1992 to June 1994, according to Pulaski County District Court dockets attached to the lawsuit.

The dockets are the only records that remain from the cases. The original court records have been destroyed.

A past president of the Arkansas Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers who regularly works as a public defender, Wyatt, 53, flatly denied the accusations and said he's still studying the documents to prepare a response to the lawsuit.

"I did not go to court and plead guilty to a crime," he said. "I'm gathering more information regarding these allegations."

Article 5 of the Constitution states that "no person ... convicted of embezzlement of public money, bribery, forgery or other infamous crime shall be eligible to the General Assembly or capable of holding any office or trust or profit in this state."

The Constitution's definition of "infamous" crimes includes "a misdemeanor offense in which the finder of fact was required to find, of the defendant to admit, an act of deceit, fraud, or false statement."

The hot-check statute, Arkansas Code 5-37-302, is a crime of "fraud" and "deceit," making it an "infamous crime" as defined by the Arkansas Supreme Court, according to the suit.

State law, Arkansas Code 21-8-305, further states that no one who has pleaded guilty to a "public trust crime" can file, run or hold a constitutional office, according to the suit.

"An 'infamous crime' that is a 'public trust crime' by its nature impugns the integrity of the office and directly impacts the person's ability to serve as an elected official," the lawsuit states. "Mr. Wyatt's trustworthiness as a judge in court or as a public official can be called into question, thus impugning the integrity of this office he seeks and his ability to serve."

The suit also asserts that Wyatt committed a misdemeanor offense by signing up for office, which required him to swear under oath that he does not have any disqualifying criminal convictions.

The lawsuit was filed by attorney Chris Burks, the Democratic Party counsel who successfully sued in 2016 to disqualify a Republican candidate for the state House of Representatives. That case also cited a hot-check conviction, which involved the 2014 purchase of a $500 incubator.

Burks referenced that ruling by special Circuit Judge David Laser in the Wyatt lawsuit.

The plaintiff is Tyray Carr, a 23-year-old Democratic Party activist in Little Rock. Burks said Carr is an Arkansas Tech University graduate who works in telecommunications.

Burks said that Carr, who is black, is part of an effort to encourage more minority candidates to seek judicial office, particularly in the 6th Judicial Circuit, which operates under federal court supervision intended to promote racial diversity on its 17-member bench.

Given that extra level of effort to encourage judicial diversity, Carr has been closely examining the backgrounds of the Pulaski-Perry county circuit judicial candidates because of a belief that they should be held to the highest standard, particularly in a race like Wyatt's, which is a competition between four white lawyers, Burks said.

"Petitioner brings this suit to protect the democratic process in Pulaski County," the lawsuit states. "Pulaski County's many minority voters have a longstanding interest in fair elections. Free and orderly elections with qualified candidates matter -- this suit seeks no more and no less."

Wyatt is seeking to replace Vann Smith, who is retiring. The other three candidates for the spot are Andrew Ballard, Tom Barron and Shawn Johnson.

The 27-year-old federal "Hunt Decree" court order controls four other judicial circuits, creating 11 judgeships in 21 counties, five of them in the 6th Judicial Circuit. Named for lead plaintiff Eugene Hunt, the order represents a settlement of a 1989 federal Voting Rights Act lawsuit intended to expand black representation in Arkansas' judiciary.

The agreement requires the five Hunt Decree judges in the Perry-Pulaski county circuit to be elected from 37 predominately black precincts out of the 136 Pulaski County precincts, which comprise the southern and eastern portions of Pulaski County.

Wyatt's race is not for a Hunt Decree judgeship.

The two retiring Hunt Decree judges, both black, are Wiley Branton and Joyce Warren. All three of the attorneys running to replace Warren are black -- Shanice Johnson, Lott Rolfe IV and Jonathan Warren. The contest to replace Branton is between Tjuana Byrd, who is black, and Suzanne Ritter Lumpkin, who is white.

Metro on 10/05/2019

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