Arkansas prosecutor under fire for collecting signatures for judicial run while trying a murder case

Arkansas prosecutor Stephanie Potter Barrett, who is seeking a seat on the state’s Court of Appeals, has come under criticism after it was revealed that her aunt was collecting signatures to get Barrett on the ballot inside the courthouse. More distressingly, at least one of the signatures favoring Barrett’s candidacy was from a juror seated in a murder trial which Barrett was prosecuting.

Barrett insists that she did nothing wrong; she did not collect the signatures herself, and she argues that the courthouse is a public space at which collection of signatures is permitted. But others are not so sure: several ethics experts pointed out that judges cannot use the courthouse to engage in political activity, and suggest that a judicial candidate should be equally restricted. The defendant in the murder trial is also seeking a mistrial based on the juror signature.

It is entirely possible that Barrett really believes that she has done nothing wrong. And it is also entirely possible that the juror who signed the petition knows nothing about Barrett, or even associated her petition with the individual prosecuting the case. (Some people will sign anything.) But the optics are terrible. The courthouse appears politicized, and the fairness of the murder conviction is in doubt.

Reasonable people may differ over the propriety of choosing judges through a direct election. But elections open the door to these kinds of stories, and these kinds of stories erode public confidence in the judiciary and the administration of justice itself.

Two state supreme courts converge in Texarkana

State courts do an admirable job of bringing their work into the community, and one of the more common approaches is to hold oral arguments in high schools. Setting up an argument in a school auditorium is manageable logistically, and allows students to see how the courts operate close-up.

So I particularly liked this story about the supreme courts of Arkansas and Texas traveling to Texarkana at the same time to hold hearings. The Arkansas justices held their proceedings at Arkansas High School, and the Texas justices at Texas High School, before coming together for a question-and-answer session at the city’s convention center. It shows the courts to be both thoughtful and savvy in their community outreach.

New developments in lawsuits concerning judicial elections in Alabama and Arkansas

Two lawsuits involving judicial elections–one each in Alabama and Arkansas–were the subject of new developments this past week.

In Alabama, the NAACP and Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights filed a federal lawsuit alleging that the state’s method of electing state appellate judges discriminates against African-American voters. The lawsuit claims that the absence of black judges on any state appellate court is the result of discriminatory vote dilution tactics. The state moved to dismiss the case on the grounds of sovereign immunity, but U.S. District Judge W. Keith Watkins denied the motion to dismiss, and set the case for a bench trial. Attorneys for the state have now taken their case to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, asking that court to overturn Judge Watkins’s refusal to dismiss the case.

The Arkansas case involved a controversial attack ad against incumbent state judge Courtney Goodson, who was seeking reelection. The Judicial Crisis Network, a conservative group, had been running the ad on several stations in northwest Arkansas when a county judge barred its further broadcast in May. The corporate owner of a Little Rock television station appealed the injunction. But last week, the state court of appeals ruled that the issue was now moot, since Justice Goodson has won reelection, and the ad was no longer airing. The issue may be moot for now, but the larger issues–prior restraint of political speech, the influence of “dark money” in elections, and the wisdom of electing judges in any event–remain.

Judge Van Pelt wins in Georgia; Justice Goodson advances in Arkansas

I previously noted the bizarre story of Georgia Superior Court Judge Ralph Van Pelt, a twenty-year veteran of the court who was promised a “blood sport” campaign by a local kingmaker. Last night, Judge Van Pelt fought off his challenger, Melissa Hise, winning over 52% of the vote.

A couple states away, Arkansas Justice Courtney Goodson advanced to a two-way race with a local attorney to keep her seat, after a whirlwind couple of weeks in which Goodson sued an out-of-state group for broadcasting defamatory attack ads against her. That lawsuit produced a preliminary injunction against the ads in some Arkansas counties but not others, and the case is still pending.

Perhaps the cauldron of a political campaign improves one’s skill, patience, and approach to judging. But I am having trouble seeing it.

Arkansas judges issue conflicting orders on judicial election attack ads

I reported last week on a lawsuit brought by Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Courtney Goodson against the Judicial Crisis Network, a special interest group that has been running attack ads against her in the days leading up to the state’s nonpartisan supreme court election. Justice Goodson’s initial request for a temporary restraining order was granted by one trial court, with the understanding that a more complete hearing for a preliminary injunction would take place later in the week.

On Friday, that hearing did take place — in front of a different judge after the original judge had to recuse due to a conflict. The new judge, Pulaski County Circuit Judge Chris Piazza, found that Justice Goodson was likely to prevail on the merits of her claim, and granted the preliminary injunction, thereby blocking all television stations from running the attack ads. But in a strange twist, just hours later a second judge in the same circuit declined to grant the injunction in a parallel case. The dual outcomes mean that voters in some parts of Northwest Arkansas have been able to see the attack ads in the final days of the campaign, while others have been barred from doing so.

An excellent summary of the events, with far more detail than I care to set out here, can be found in this Arkansas Online story.

As I previously noted, this case raises a variety of important issues–about freedom of expression and its limits, the power of injunctions, and the wisdom of electing judges. We’ll continue to follow it through Election Day and beyond.

When elected judges rule on judicial elections

On Monday, Arkansas state trial judge Doug Martin issued a temporary restraining order preventing the conservative Judicial Crisis Network (JCN) from airing television ads critical of Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Courtney Goodson. The ads alleged, among other things, that Justice Goodson accepted monetary gifts from lawyers. Justice Goodson sued JCN, alleging that the ads were false and defamatory. The election is scheduled for next Tuesday, May 22; early voting has already commenced.

The TRO raises a number of evergreen issues in judicial elections, including the degree to which it constitutes an unconstitutional prior restraint on free speech, and whether the harm done to the judicial system by attack ads outweighs any benefits from selecting judges by the ballot. The additional twist here is that the propriety of conduct during judicial elections was itself determined by an elected judge — that is, someone who has a clear stake in the judicial selection process. Indeed, Judge Martin is no stranger to election controversies, having been censured for statements made about his opponent in the 2014 campaign. Of course, any Arkansas state judge would have some professional interest in the outcome of the case (since all face election), and I am not aware of any aspect of Justice Goodson’s complaint that would have made the case fit to be heard by a federal judge with a lifetime appointment.

As the name implies, a TRO is used to stop offending activity for only a short period, and typically expires within a few days. This TRO is no exception; the parties will return to court tomorrow for further hearings on whether to issue a preliminary injunction. Given the high profile of the case and the stakes for Judge Martin’s reputation, I expect that he will carefully and extensively probe the First Amendment issues with the parties before issuing another order.

 

Update on state legislation affecting the courts

State legislatures continue to propose and advance bills that will impact their respective court systems.  Here are some of the latest developments:

  • Indiana’s proposal to convert Marion County (Indianapolis) to a merit selection system is heading to conference committee.  The latest version of the bill calls for a 14-member nominating committee to choose three final candidates for the governor’s selection; four of the committee members would be chosen from voters.  Previous coverage of the Indiana bill and its history is here.
  • In Arkansas, a new bill would change the way state judges are elected in Cumberland County Superior Court.  The current election system grants seats on the bench to the top two vote-getters among all candidates.  The bill would require candidates to declare which of the two judicial seats they are seeking.
  • The Florida House of Representatives has passed an amendment to the state constitution that would impose term limits on state appellate judges, including supreme court justices.  This is a terrible idea, but happily it is still in its infancy.  The state senate would also have to approve the move, and then voters would have to approve it in 2018.  Similar efforts in others states have been defeated in recent years after they were exposed for the transparent political proposals that they were.
  • Nebraska’s unicameral legislature has advanced a bill to raise judicial pay in the state.