I learned today that the state Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission had notified two judicial candidates in 2010 that the complaints against them for improper use of partisan endorsements have been dismissed.
The letters to Judge Rhonda Wood, who lost a race for court of appeals, and Judge Tim Fox, who lost a race for Arkansas Supreme Court, fall short of exoneration. They indicate the discipline panels gave the candidates the benefit of the doubt because of the unsettled nature of the law then over the limits on political speech by judicial candidates imposed by state ethical canons. Several cases have challenged such canons as unconstitutional 1st Amendment infringements.
The letters note that the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals this year finally upheld judicial canons in another state virtually identifical to those in Arkansas that continue to impose some limits on speech. David Sachar, staff attorney at the Arkansas Commission, said that the case being contested at the time these complaints arose has now been upheld by the 8th Circuit, which covers Arkansas. As a result, he said, “I believe an investigative panel could find a willful violation” on partisan endorsements in the future.
Rhonda Wood used robocalls by Mike Huckabee in her campaign. Fox’s campaign noted that he’d been recommended by Republican Party officials.
Wood is running for Court of Appeals again this year against Judge Mitch Cash.
Arkansas judges run on a non-partisan basis, but the election is held on the same day as party primaries. Republicans pushed for the change to non-partisan elections and Democrats gave up reluctantly because of the filing fees judicial candidates of then-overwhelmingly Democratic candidates had swelled party coffers. Now, Republicans find advantage in signaling to voters when a judicial candidate is a Republican or has such leanings because the party has become so closely identified with rigid outlooks on a variety of judicial issues. It is usually enough to inveigh against judicial activism to get the message across.