Jim Wyatt, the president of the Pulaski County Bar Association, is out of the race for 6th Judicial Circuit judge unless the Arkansas Supreme Court says differently, Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen ruled Wednesday.
Court records show Wyatt, 53, pleaded guilty to three misdemeanor hot-check counts more than 25 years ago, just as he was finishing law school and obtaining his law license.
Wyatt disputed the records' accuracy and testified that he has never pleaded guilty to a crime and never been convicted of a crime. He told the judge that he has no criminal convictions, let alone any that would disqualify him from serving as circuit judge.
But Griffen capped a five-hour court hearing by disqualifying Wyatt from the 6th Circuit race, which encompasses Perry and Pulaski counties. The judge said he is required to rely on those records -- two sets of court dockets -- and "obliged to follow the law, regardless of my personal feelings."
"The proof is set by court records, whatever those records may be," Griffen said. "I know Jim Wyatt. I believe Jim Wyatt to be an honorable man. I take no joy in this decision."
Wyatt's defenders promised an "immediate" appeal to the Supreme Court, and Griffen told the sides he wanted his ruling to be reviewed by the state justices as soon as possible.
"If I am wrong, the voters of Pulaski County need to know that sooner rather than later," the judge said.
The issue of Wyatt's candidacy was before the judge on Wednesday as the result of a lawsuit filed six days earlier that says hot-check convictions, even misdemeanors, disqualify any candidate seeking election to a constitutional office, including circuit court judge.
Hot checks fall under the definition of "infamous crimes" described by Article 5 of the Arkansas Constitution as disqualifying a candidate from holding office, plaintiff attorney Chris Burks told the judge.
"The official records show ... a plea of guilt," Burks said. "The court has to look to the court records."
The two docket sets are contradictory and confusing, Wyatt's attorney, Lauren Hoover, told the judge. They also are not sufficient to prove that Wyatt was ever adjudicated guilty of a crime, she said. That finding can only be supported by the actual court sentencing order, which no longer exists because all of the original paperwork has been legally destroyed over time.
"There is no credible proof that a conviction has taken place," Hoover told the judge.
There are also no ancillary records, like a photograph or fingerprint card, that a conviction should have generated, which would include an entry for Wyatt in the Arkansas Crime Information Center, she said.
The center maintains a database exclusively used by law enforcement that documents all arrests and court outcomes in the state, even for expunged cases. Hoover pointed to testimony from Brad Cazort, the center's director, who said Wyatt has no records in the database.
Wyatt was licensed in August 1993. The hot-check cases were filed between September 1992 and June 1994, But his law license does not reflect any accusation of criminal conduct, Hoover said. Any judge who presided over an attorney who pleads guilty to a crime would have an obligation to report that plea to legal licensing authorities, she told the judge.
Wyatt is a past president of the Arkansas Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers who regularly works as a public defender. He spent about 45 minutes answering questions under oath and testified he has known about the records for less than a week.
"I didn't even know about this until you filed the lawsuit," he told Burks during cross-examination. "I've never been convicted of a felony or a misdemeanor."
Hoover opened Wednesday's proceedings by asking the judge to immediately dismiss the suit because the plaintiff, 23-year-old Tyray Carr of Little Rock, did not attend the hearing. Wyatt is entitled to confront his accuser, she said, telling the judge she wanted to cross-examine Carr about whether he has given election officials his actual address and complied with all voter-registration requirements.
But the judge sided with Burks who said Carr's attendance was not required. All Carr had to do was show that he is a registered voter in the Perry-Pulaski county circuit, and that proof was submitted by the secretary of state, Burks told the judge. Burks told the judge that Carr, a Democratic activist, remains supportive of the litigation.
Wyatt's dismissal leaves three candidates, Andrew Ballard, Tom Barron and Shawn Johnson, running to replace retiring Judge Vann Smith in the March election.
Speaking after the hearing, Burks, a former Democratic Party counsel, said he took on the issue of Wyatt's candidacy as a lawyer specializing in constitutional election law, one of only about five in the state.
Burks acknowledged that he, through his law firm, has supported one of the candidates but said that neither Ballard nor Johnson was involved in the decision to sue to get Wyatt out of the race.
"I'm not campaigning for any candidate," he said. "No candidate has asked me to do this."
Metro on 10/10/2019
Print Headline: Judicial hopeful told he can't run