Wood to seek new term on Supreme Court

 Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Rhonda Wood.
Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Rhonda Wood.

Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Rhonda K. Wood formally announced Wednesday that she is running for reelection next year.

Wood has served as an associate justice in Position 7 on the Supreme Court since 2015. She was elected in 2014 without an opponent.

"When I first ran for the Supreme Court, I pledged to bring Arkansas values to our state's highest court -- faith, family, hard-working, conservative values," Wood said in her news release. "Throughout my first term I've done just that, making tough decisions in the face of immense pressure. As a member of the court, I will always uphold the rule of law and the Arkansas Constitution will be my guide."

Wood served on the state Court of Appeals from 2013-14 and as a circuit judge in the 20th Judicial District from 2007-12. She previously was an attorney at the Wood Law Firm and Williams & Anderson PLC.

"My experience and record as a judge show that I'm tried, true, and tested," she said in the release. "Having heard more than ten thousand cases in my judicial career and serving as an appellate judge for almost ten years, voters can read and evaluate my votes on actual cases and matters of law. There is no guessing what type of Supreme Court Justice I will be."

So far, no one has announced a challenge to Wood. Judgeships are nonpartisan.

Wood has chaired the Arkansas Commission on Children, Youth and Families, which is dedicated to improving how children and their families interact with the state's courts. She has served on the Advisory Council for Children's Advocacy Centers for Arkansas and on both the Child Welfare Advisory Panel and the Juvenile Justice Reform Board as an appointee of Gov. Asa Hutchinson.

In an unusual matter for a Supreme Court justice, Wood testified in the recent bribery trial of former lawmaker Gilbert Baker of Conway. Baker was acquitted last month of conspiracy to bribe a judge, but he will be retried this fall on eight other counts that deadlocked a federal jury.

Baker, a former political fundraiser and past chairman of the state Republican Party, was accused of serving as a middleman in an effort to bribe then-Circuit Judge Mike Maggio to reduce a $5.2 million judgment that a jury returned in May 2013 against Greenbrier Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in a wrongful death lawsuit.

Wood testified about dealings with Baker, telling jurors that neither Baker nor Maggio, with whom she served as a circuit judge, had ever discussed the nursing home case with her.

In 2013, she received $48,000 in campaign contributions from the nursing home's owner, Michael Morton, in the form of 24 checks for $2,000 each, drawn off of several of Morton's business entities. Those checks were part of the $228,000 that prosecutors said was delivered to Baker's home on July 9, 2013, the day after Maggio reduced the nursing home award.

Wood testified that her friendship with Baker goes back about 25 years and that he had assisted her on a number of campaigns. She said she served for several years with Maggio as a circuit judge, the two of them occasionally filling in for each other because their offices and courtrooms were next to each other in the Faulkner County Courthouse Annex.

Wood testified that in November 2013, Baker began helping on her Supreme Court race. At the same time, Maggio was running for a seat on the Arkansas Court of Appeals, a race he abandoned in early 2014 over controversial online comments he had made on a university website.

Wood said that although she was peripherally aware of the nursing home lawsuit in Maggio's court, she never had any detailed knowledge of it.

The Supreme Court justice was also questioned about text messages between her and Baker on July 9, 2013, the day the FedEx package arrived from Morton containing $228,000 -- including the $48,000 destined for Wood.

State Supreme Court positions have staggered terms, so not all seven justices are up for reelection in the same year.

The filing period for candidates for state and federal offices in Arkansas is Feb. 22-March 1, 2022, with the primary election May 24, according to the secretary of state's office.

Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Robin F. Wynne announced earlier this year that he is seeking re-election next year.

Wynne has served as an associate justice in Position 2 since 2015.

District Judge Chris Carnahan of Conway is seeking the Arkansas Supreme Court post held by Wynne. Carnahan is the Division 1 state district judge for Faulkner and Van Buren counties.

A third associate justice post will be on the ballot in next year's election. Position 6 is held by Justice Karen Baker, who has served since 2011. Baker could not be reached Wednesday for comment by telephone or email about her plans. Baker filled a vacancy on the high court in a special election in 2010 and won an election in 2014.

The four other members of the Arkansas Supreme Court are Chief Justice Dan Kemp and Justices Shawn A. Womack, Courtney Rae Hudson and Barbara Webb.

Associate justices are paid $184,588 a year, while the chief justice gets $199,344 a year. A 3% pay raise for judges was approved Wednesday by the Independent Citizens Commission and is scheduled to take effect later in fiscal 2022.

Information for this article was contributed by Dale Ellis of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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