Ruling: Conway judge qualified to serve despite past suspensions

LITTLE ROCK — Circuit Judge H.G. Foster of Conway can remain on the May 20 ballot despite several administrative suspensions within the past six years, Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen ruled Tuesday.

As he did in a previous case, Griffen also ruled that a state Supreme Court rule requiring the automatic suspension of lawyers and judges who fail to pay state license fees on time is unconstitutional because it violates their due process rights.

Foster is the latest of several Arkansas judicial candidates to appear in court in the past few weeks to defend against challenges to their qualifications. The cases have resulted in a variety of different rulings on an issue that is expected to reach the state Supreme Court eventually.

Lawyer Doralee Chandler of Conway and Foster are seeking a seat on the 20th Judicial District Circuit Court, which includes Faulkner, Searcy and Van Buren counties. Chandler filed a lawsuit alleging that Foster, who was appointed to a different seat on the 20th Judicial Circuit, should be disqualified because of past administrative suspensions for late payment of license fees.

Amendment 80 to the Arkansas Constitution states that a circuit judge must have been a license lawyer in the state for six years immediately before taking office. At the end of a three-hour hearing Tuesday, Griffen ruled that administrative suspensions do not disqualify a judicial candidate under Amendment 80.

The evidence showed that despite the suspensions, Foster was never unlicensed in the past six years, Griffen said.

“A suspended license is a license. It is not a non-license,” he said.

The ruling took no one by surprise, as Griffen had ruled last week that Angela Byrd, a candidate for a different 20th District judgeship, is qualified to serve if elected despite a past administrative suspension.

Griffen also ruled in Byrd’s case that the Supreme Court rule that required her automatic suspension from the practice of law is unconstitutional. On Tuesday he granted a third-party complaint by Foster that asked for a similar finding on the rule.

Griffen said the rule deprives lawyers and judges of a property and liberty interest without giving them advance notice or an opportunity to offer an explanation.

“As we say back in Southwest Arkansas, you can’t just ‘up and do it,’” Griffen said.

Chandler’s attorney, Lucien Gillham, had argued that lawyers and judges are charged with knowing the Supreme Court’s rules and that they receive reminders when their fees are due, so the suspensions do not happen without notice.

Last month, special appointed judge John Cole disqualified Little Rock lawyer Valerie Thompson Bailey from challenging Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox’s re-election bid, saying that a past administrative suspension disqualified her under Amendment 80. Bailey has asked Cole to reconsider his ruling.

A voter later challenged Fox’s qualifications on the same grounds, and on Monday special appointed judge Sam Bird ruled that Fox was qualified, saying he disagreed with Cole’s interpretation of Amendment 80. Bird declined to declare the Supreme Court’s rule on administrative suspension unconstitutional, however.

Foster has petitioned the Supreme Court to declare him qualified to serve. His attorney, Jeff Rosenzweig, said Tuesday that as long as the possibility of an appeal by Chandler exists, the petition will not be withdrawn.

Chandler said she disagreed with Griffen’s ruling and would consult with her attorney before deciding whether to appeal.