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Circuit judge censured for incident in Bentonville parking lot with former House speaker

by Tracy Neal | January 22, 2022 at 7:30 a.m.
Screenshot from a security camera of an incident involving Benton County Circuit Judge Brad Karren.

BENTONVILLE -- A local circuit judge received a censure Friday for a confrontation he engaged in last year with a former state legislator over a parking spot.

The Arkansas Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission issued a news release concerning its censure of Judge Brad Karren.

The panel was prepared to charge Karren with some violations, but he agreed to the sanctions, according to the letter of censure.

Karren agreed his behavior was inappropriate and told the commission he regrets his participation in the dispute and will continue to take steps to ensure his conduct remains above reproach, according to the commission's letter.

"Without question, I accept full responsibility and public censure today," Karren said in a statement from Mark Henry, his attorney. "I know that integrity, independence, and impartiality are key prerequisites for an effective and functional judiciary and judicial system."

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Davy Carter, a Jonesboro resident, served as speaker of the Arkansas House from 2013 to 2015.

Carter posted on Twitter his account of the April 30 incident his family had with Karren in a parking lot behind the judge's courtroom in downtown Bentonville.

Carter tweeted he and his wife had dinner that night at The Hive restaurant in the 21c Museum Hotel. They called their son, a student at the University of Arkansas to join them.

Carter's son arrived a little after 7 p.m. and parked in the lot between the hotel and the court building at 200 N.E. A St. The lot serves as parking for Karren, his staff and county employees.

A sign at the lot entrance states "Benton County employee parking only, 7 5 p.m." However, a sign in front of the spot where Carter's son parked states, "Reserved parking 24/7 violators towed."

Carter's wife and son left the restaurant about 30 seconds before he did, according to Carter. He said he walked out and found an angry Karren berating his wife and son.

Carter said on Twitter he intervened and cursed at Karren. Carter posted on Twitter a brief video of the encounter. The video shows Karren, who was armed with a gun on his hip, throwing his cane to the ground as he faced Carter.

The incident attracted public attention through social media and media coverage, and the video was watched thousands of times online, according to the letter.

David J. Sachar, the commission's executive director, previously said he saw Carter's tweets about the incident and filed the complaint against Karren. Sachar said an anonymous complaint related to the incident was also filed against Karren, and it was merged with his complaint.

The letter states Karren agreed his behavior was inappropriate and his actions could have been avoided. "Your demeanor throughout the incident was not consistent with the high standards to which judges should aspire," the letter states. "You allowed frustration and personal stressors to impact your handling of that encounter that day."

The letter states Karren didn't act in a way promoting public confidence in the independence, integrity and impartiality of the judiciary.

Karren mitigated the possibility of receiving a harsher punishment by accepting the censure which saved time and money, according to the letter.

The panel considered as mitigation of some difficult years Karren had endured and his heavy caseload. The panel learned Karren almost died eight years ago when he broke his neck in a bicycle accident and two years ago he experienced full cardiac arrest and underwent triple bypass surgery, according to the letter. Karren had also had a major surgery to replace his hip weeks before the incident with Carter, according to the letter.

Karren also had multiple credible death threats and two led to criminal charges against two people, according to the letter.

Karren handled a heavy criminal docket; presided over multiple capital murder cases; and handled many jury trials throughout that time, according to the letter.

The letter states Karren sought counseling after the incident with Carter.

Karren agreed with the panel on certain measures:

• He enrolled and attended a four-day class on "Mindfulness for Judges through the National Judicial College;

• He submitted proof of participation in counseling offered through the Judges and Lawyers Assistance Program, and he agreed to continue the meetings until his counselor and he determine the sessions are no longer necessary;

• He had read and reviewed the IBA Report: Us Too? Bullying and Sexual Harassment in the Legal Profession;

• Have no more complaints that result in a finding of probable cause resulting in public charges or agreed discipline, and

• Through the agreement he officially reiterated his apology to those involved and to the public.

A new complaint may be filed against Karren if he violates any of the terms, the letter states.

Five local attorneys -- Doug Norwood, Sean Keith, Shane Wilkinson, Drew Miller and Blair Brady --provided statements to the panel in support of Karren.

"Judge Karren is a judge in a tough neighborhood – felony circuit," Norwood said. "He constantly deals with the underbelly of society, the rapists, child molesters, killers, arsonists, wife beaters, etc. But no matter what their label, nor the fact that they represent a seemingly endless conveyor belt of human misery, Judge Karren makes every effort to see that each one of them is treated fairly and properly under the law. I firmly believe that Judge Karren is true to his judicial oath in every respect."

"I know Judge Karren," Keith said. "I know he is truly sorry for his role in this unfortunately public spectacle. More importantly, I know he has learned from it. The consistency of character I witnessed in Judge Karren is one of fairness and impartiality."

Sachar said the panel observed Karren's court and he presided over proceedings with video conferencing.

"There was nothing found to be troubling about his demeanor in court," Sachar said.

Karren, 59, was first elected circuit court judge in 2012. He won reelection in 2014 and 2020. His current term expires Dec. 31, 2026.

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A censure is a formal sanction for violating the Code of Judicial conduct. It is a declaration that a judge is guilty of misconduct that does not require suspension or removal.

Source: Staff report

Print Headline: Circuit judge censured for Bentonville parking lot incident with former House speaker


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