Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Courtney Hudson Goodson’s recent disclosure that she received a gift of a $50,000 trip to Italy last year from Fayetteville lawyer W.H. Taylor continues to stir talk that prompted me to pose a series of questions to various parties.
I asked among others, if Justice Goodson’s trip had included use of the yacht of John Tyson, chairman of the board of Tyson Foods and if that relationship would affect the justice’s participation in Tyson cases. I asked about the nature of the business relationship between Justice Goodson’s husband, John Goodson, the Texarkana trial lawyer (like Tyson a member of the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees) and Taylor. I asked whether the gift perhaps could be construed as payment of a business obligation under the Goodson/Taylor relationship. I asked if Taylor had made a gift tax filing or report on the gift as an offset to the uniform lifetime exclusion for gifts under federal estate tax laws.
Most questions went unanswered, but one statement indicates the Goodson trip to Italy did include use of the Tyson yacht.
From Archie Schaffer III, a Tyson consultant:
First of all, W.H. Taylor represents the Tyson family, not Tyson Foods, Inc. He has not represented the company for a number of years. Second, the Tyson family does own a boat and because of the family’s relationship with Mr. Taylor, as both a long time friend and attorney, they have allowed him to use it on some occasions. We understand his friends, the Goodsons, may have accompanied him on the trip in question.
When I asked Schaffer if this amounted, as it appeared, to a confirmation that the Goodsons had used the Tyson yacht on the Italian gift trip, he referred me to Taylor. I haven’t heard back from him. Earlier, he’d responded to several questions, “I don’t talk about my personal life.”
So far, I haven’t gotten a return call from John Goodson.
Stephanie Harris, a spokesman for the Supreme Court, took my questions for Justice Goodson. She replied:
To avoid even an appearance of impropriety, Justice Goodson has been recusing from all Tyson cases.
Justice Goodson’s recusals from Tyson case dates back to September 2011, when she issued this brief recusal letter in a Tyson case.
Otherwise, she said, “Justice Goodson will have no further comment.”
I’d also asked Harris further questions about a point I raised previously. In December, Justice Goodson was named to succeed Justice Paul Danielson as the court’s liasion to the Supreme Court committee that regulates the legal profession, including enforcement of ethics rules. Concurrent with her appointment was the naming of two Fayetteville lawyers to the disciplinary panel, Nicki Cung and Tonya Patrick, who happens to be W. H. Taylor’s wife. these are unpaid positions.
Over the years, the justices who serve as liaison to the committee have had some influence over committee appointments. I asked how these latest appointments were made. Stephanie Harris responded:
Recommendations for committee appointments come from a variety of sources, including the justices themselves, committee members, or other attorneys. The recommendations are vetted, which just means they are asked whether they want to serve, then the Court checks to see if there is disciplinary history which may cause concern. Once that is done, the court votes as a body on the appointments.
State ethics laws allow gifts, even large ones, by long-time friends and business associates to public officials. Justice Goodson had previously reported for 2011 a $12,000 gift of a trip to the Caribbean from Taylor. Justice Goodson told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette when it reported her Italy trip disclosure on the required annual financial interest statement for 2012 that she planned to recuse from all cases involving Taylor. Appearances will remain an issue nonetheless. When Tyson largesse figures into an expensive vacation on a private yacht, you can’t help but remember that Tyson influence extends to realms far beyond the chicken business, from the UA Board to the poultry lobby, state chamber of commerce and other areas.
You also might be inclined to wonder why John Goodson, a famously successful lawyer in class action cases, can’t pick up the tab for his own vacation.
PS — There’s a bit of ironic tension at work in this story. Justice Goodson, then Judge Henry, was elected to the Supreme Court in 2010 with significant business community financial support. They thought they’d elected a friendly jurist. They aren’t happy now with some of Goodson’s rulings, which they see friendlier to the trial lawyerly types like Goodson and Taylor. Add to it that Hudson divorced shortly after her election and her ex-husband, Mark Henry, was lauded extensively by new Justice Jo Hart when she was sworn in as being instrumental to her victory. Justices Hart and Goodson have wound up on different sides of recent opinions since then, if you’re scoring at home.