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story.lead_photo.caption File photo -- Arkansas State Supreme Court building

A circuit judge candidate in northeast Arkansas is eligible to run in the election despite having a decades-old conviction for using fictitious car tags, the Arkansas Supreme Court said Thursday in a decision handed down just days before early voting begins.

The candidate, Adam Weeks, was ruled ineligible to run for a judgeship in the 3rd Judicial Circuit by Pulaski County Circuit Judge Chris Piazza last month because of the misdemeanor conviction. Piazza had called the outcome "absurd," but said he was bound by state law, which prohibits anyone convicted of crimes involving "deceit, fraud or false statement" from holding public office.

By a 6-1 decision handed down Thursday, the Supreme Court reversed Piazza's ruling, finding that a conviction for violating the state's fictitious-tag law "does not necessarily" mean that the violator was proved to be dishonest.

"No words such as deceit, fraud or false statement -- or anything remotely similar -- are present" in the law, Justice Robin Wynne wrote for the majority. "Furthermore only one of the three ways one can violate [the statute] requires a culpable mental state."

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Joining Wynne in the majority were Justices Courtney Hudson, Shawn Womack, Rhonda Wood, Josephine "Jo" Hart and Karen Baker.

In a statement released by his campaign Thursday, Weeks, who is now a district judge in Lawrence County, praised the decision to allow him to remain in the race.

Weeks had told Piazza that the charge stemmed from his freshman year in college, when he borrowed a car from his family's used-car dealership so that he could serve as a designated driver for friends at the University of Central Arkansas.

"Removing me from the ballot simply because at 18 years old I drove a car one day with dealership tags from a car dealership that my family owned was absurd and I'm glad the Supreme Court allows me to continue running for judge," the statement said.

Because candidates for the March 3 nonpartisan judicial general election were certified before Piazza's ruling, ballots were printed to include Weeks' name, according to Chris Powell, a spokesman for the secretary of state's office. Had the order striking Weeks from the election been upheld, votes cast for Weeks simply would not have been counted.

Other candidates running for the Division 3 seat in the 3rd Judicial Circuit are Joe Grider, Timothy Watson Sr. and Hollie Wilson. The 3rd Circuit covers Jackson, Lawrence, Randolph and Sharp counties.

A lawsuit seeking to have Weeks kicked off the ballot was filed in December by Judy Miller, a voter from Randolph County. Her attorney, Chris Burks, said Thursday that he agreed with a dissenting opinion written by Chief Justice Dan Kemp.

"These cases are about the principle that all candidates must follow the constitution exactly," Burks said.

The initial complaint filed by Burks also alleged that Weeks was ineligible for the ballot because of past hot-check violations, which also stemmed from his teenage years. However, Piazza ruled that the hot-check charges were not disqualifying because the available records could not prove a conviction.

Burks also was involved in another lawsuit this year challenging the candidacy of James Winfield Wyatt for a judgeship in the 6th Judicial Circuit because of past hot-check violations. In that case, a lower court's decision to strip Wyatt from the ballot was upheld by the Arkansas Supreme Court.

In his dissent, Kemp pointed to the court's decision in the Wyatt case and other cases to suggest that the majority was breaking with precedent.

"Weeks's conviction should disqualify him from the ballot," Kemp wrote. "To hold otherwise results in this court's disparate treatment of judges and judicial candidates."

The majority's mandate ordering the secretary of state's office and election officials to count all votes cast for Weeks went into effect on Thursday, just before the start of early voting Tuesday.

Metro on 02/14/2020

Print Headline: Judge candidate ruled eligible for ballot

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