Judge-elect Wendell Griffen is up early this morning. He rises here to defend Judge Karen Baker’s acceptance of a $250 contribution from a Republican Party committee in her race for state Supreme Court against Judge Tim Fox. The state Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission director David Stewart, according to a Democrat-Gazette article this morning about the contribution, thinks accepting a political contribution is problematic. From here, it certainly looks tantamount to accepting a political party endorsement and thus prohibited by the state’s ethics rules covering judges. Baker believes a contribution is not an endorsement (dubious reasoning, that.)
Griffen takes a third view, supported by evolving case law, if not Arkansas judicial canons. He says a judge can take money and take endorsements from political parties. Any prohibition is an infringement of free speech. I’ll give you some of his detailed explanation on the jump. But if he eventually proves right — as he has in his own battles to speak freely in a previous stint as appeals clourt judge — we won’t be far removed from the day when the notion that Arkansas has non-partisan judicial races will become a sham.
I should also say this about accepting political party contributions, as I’ve said about some of Griffen’s own past pronouncements:
Just because a judge can say or do something, doesn’t mean it’s judicious behavior to actually do it. Here, Karen Baker has advertised her Republican bona fides by taking this money, a sneer at the state’s non-partisan judicial election system. I think it was intentional and meant to send a signal. Even this year, Judge Baker, that signal could cut both ways.
UPDATE: A campaign consultant and others have noted that Baker also took cash from a Democratic women’s committee and Fox has noted kind words said about him in a slate of judicial candidates recommended by Republican Party officials. My opinion is unchanged: I think Griffen is right. The Constitution allows this, ethics rule or no rule. But as long as we have non-partisan judicial elections, judicial candidates should avoid promoting partisan coloration by taking party money or advertising party associations.