LITTLE ROCK — The state Supreme Court received briefs Friday but did not immediately issue a ruling in four appeals revolving around the issue of judicial candidates’ qualifications.
The cases grew out of a voter’s lawsuit that challenged the qualifications of lawyer Valerie Thompson Bailey of Little Rock to run for the position held by Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox. Special appointed Circuit Judge John Cole ruled in March that Bailey was not qualified because of a past administrative suspension.
Cole cited Amendment 80 to the Arkansas Constitution, which states that a circuit judge must have been a licensed attorney in the state for six years immediately before taking office.
That ruling was followed quickly by lawsuits challenging the qualifications of three other candidates: Fox; lawyer Angela Byrd of Conway, who is seeking a judgeship in the 20th Judicial District; and Circuit Judge H.G. Foster of Conway, a candidate for a different 20th District judgeship. All three have had administrative suspensions within the past six years.
Special appointed Circuit Judge Sam Bird ruled that Fox was qualified, while Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen not only found Byrd and Foster qualified but also ruled that a state Supreme Court rule requiring the automatic suspension of a lawyer or judge who is late paying state license fees is unconstitutional because it violates due-process rights.
In her appeal brief Friday, Bailey argued that an administrative suspension has the effect of suspending a lawyer from the practice of law but does not constitute loss of a law license. She also argued that it is unfair for her to be disqualified from the ballot while other judges with past administrative suspensions have been found qualified.
“Public respect for the law and the judicial process should not tolerate what is perceived to be favoritism, partiality and unequal application of the law,” Bailey argued in her brief.
Kristen Hulse, the voter who challenged Bailey’s qualifications, argued in her brief that Cole’s ruling was correct and that the ballots for the May 20 primary and nonpartisan election have already been printed, without Bailey’s name.
“Appellant Bailey waited too long to seek any relief from this court,” Hulse argued.
Meanwhile, John Kelly, the voter who challenged Fox’s qualifications, filed an appeal brief Friday arguing that if Bailey was disqualified, Fox should be, too.
“If ever there was a case that cries out for the even application of law, it’s this one,” Kelly argued.
Fox argued in his brief that a lawyer or judge is considered to be no longer licensed if he or she fails to pay license fees for three or more years.
Fox was suspended for a matter of days, whereas Bailey was suspended for nine years while she focused on raising a family. Cole ruled in her case that there is no difference between suspensions, however, saying that “a suspension is a suspension is a suspension.”
Leslie Steen, the clerk of the Arkansas Supreme Court, has appealed Griffen’s two rulings that the Supreme Court’s rule on administrative suspensions is unconstitutional. In his briefs Friday, Steen said lawyers are charged with knowing that failing to pay their license fees will result in suspension and that they receive letters each year reminding them to pay their fees on time, so their rights of due process are not violated.
But Steen said he agreed with Griffen that “delinquency never impacts the actual licensure of the attorney.”
Foster argued in his brief that the rule is unconstitutional but said the Supreme Court could avoid the constitutionality issue by interpreting its rule to mean that lawyers who fail to pay fees on time are “delinquent,” not suspended.
Byrd argued in her brief that the rule is unconstitutional but said the Supreme Court could cure the problem by requiring the clerk’s office to begin notifying lawyers when they are about to be suspended and giving them a chance to be heard.
Secretary of State Mark Martin filed briefs in the cases arguing that the ballots have been printed and that the appellants waited too long to seek relief.
In a friend-of-the-court brief, Attorney General Dustin McDaniel asked the Supreme Court to declare retroactively that the rule on suspensions does not affect attorney’s law licenses.
The Supreme Court has said it will give the cases expedited consideration.