The controversy surrounding Faulkner County Circuit Judge Mike Maggio has raised an important question about judicial independence as Arkansas nears the May 20 party primaries and judicial elections.
Maggio had been a candidate for the Arkansas Court of Appeals until blogger Matt Campbell reported in his Blue Hog Report about the Conway judge’s numerous postings on a Louisiana State University fan Web site under the pseudonym “geauxjudge.” He made derogatory remarks about women, blacks, gays and Arkansans and also disclosed confidential judicial information about actress Charlize Theron’s adoption of a child in 2012 in Faulkner County.
The state Supreme Court relieved Maggio of all cases in his court pending the outcome of two investigations into ethical and legal issues related to campaign contributions.
Last July 8 Maggio presided over a hearing in a case against the Greenbrier Nursing and Rehabilitation Center involving the 2008 death of Martha Bull, a patient. A jury had unanimously awarded $5.2 million in damages to her family because of the nursing home’s neglect, but three days after the hearing,Maggio reduced the award to $1 million.
The same day as the hearing the office of Fort Smith businessman Michael Morton, owner of the nursing home, issued two checks totaling $24,000 for political action committees that Morton said were formed for Maggio’s Court of Appeals campaign.
The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette later reported that two nursing home chains accounted for nearly half of the $58,650 contributed to Maggio’s campaign before it folded. One chain, operated by Ovation Health Systems Inc. of Conway, contributed $16,000, and the other, Morton’s Central Arkansas Nursing Centers, contributed $12,950.
Arkansas campaign-finance laws restrict individuals and corporations from giving more than $2,000 per election to a single candidate, but corporations that own several companies can get around the laws by using the different entities. Morton’s donations went to seven different PACs, which then made the contributions after the official start of Maggio’s campaign.
Maggio has refunded all the money to six of the PACs and made a partial refund to the seventh.
Meanwhile, Maggio, whose term ends Dec. 31, will draw his annual salary of $138,982 for doing nothing — at least until the investigations are complete.
Nursing homes have led the charge for legislation to minimize their liability before juries. Legislation sponsored by state Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Beebe, will limit such lawsuits to medical negligence. In the Martha Bull case the jury awarded damages for pain, suffering and mental anguish.
Political contributions to judges and judicial candidates are part of the nursing homes’ strategy. The Arkansas Times reported that two state Supreme Court candidates — Karen Baker and Rhonda Wood, both from the Faulkner Circuit Court — have received contributions from Morton’s companies. Neither has opposition in May.
Morton has contributed to three current candidates for Faulkner Circuit Court — Troy Braswell, Doralee Chandler and David M. Clark. For Chandler, The Times said in early March, Morton accounted for $12,000 of the $12,800 she had received.
Therein lies the potential problem. Several years ago Arkansas adopted a nonpartisan method of electing judges and prosecutors, thus taking political party money out of their campaigns. But that left a void for candidates who aren’t rich. Who else will contribute to a judicial campaign?
Certainly, a few attorneys will, and some actually do so because they believe a certain candidate will make a good judge or prosecutor. So what if they secretly hope the contribution will help them get a favorable ruling now and then?
As we might expect, the void is being filled by special interests that also hope for a favorable rulings. Don’t tell me those nursing homes are just supporting the democratic process.
Arkansas’ Code of Judicial Conduct “prohibits a candidate for judicial office from making statements that appear to commit the candidate regarding cases, controversies or issues likely to come before the court.” That limits what judicial candidates can say to their own background and qualifications.
But David Stewart, a former Pulaski County circuit judge now serving as a special judge in Fayetteville, contended in an Arkansas Week interview last week that judicial candidates must maintain political independence if the judicial branch is to remain a check and a balance for the legislative and executive branches. The appearance of independence is as critical as actual independence.
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Roy Ockert is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun. He may be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.