The D-G reports this morning that separate lawsuits have been filed against Judge H.G. Foster and Angela Byrd, asking that they be disqualified from running in next month’s judicial races because of issues with past suspensions of law licenses for non-payment of bar dues.
These sorts of suits were inevitable in the wake of Circuit Judge John Cole‘s recent ruling disqualifying lawyer Valerie Thompson Bailey from challenging Circuit Judge Tim Fox. The constitution requires that judicial candidates be “licensed attorneys of this state for at least six years immediately preceding the date of assuming office” (or eight years for the Supreme Court). Bailey’s license was suspended between 2002 and 2011 for failing to complete a required annual legal education course. Cole declined to make a distinction between an administrative suspension and a disciplinary suspension. “A suspension is a suspension is a suspension,” he said from the bench.
Well, it turns out that a number of candidates, including sitting judges, had suspensions in the past that — applying Cole’s logic — would arguably amount to an interruption in the required time as licensed attorneys. This is an issue that Blue Hog Report has been stirring the hornet’s nest on ever since.
Foster, seeking election to a 20th Circuit Court seat* has had his license suspended four times since 2009 for not paying bar fees on time. In total, the suspensions amount to 216 days. Doralee Idleman Chandler, running against Foster, has filed suit, arguing that Foster was unlicensed during those 216 days and therefore is disqualified from running.
Byrd, a Conway attorney seeking a different Circuit Court seat, had her license suspended for a single day in March for failure to pay bar fees on time. The suit against Byrd was filed on behalf of Lonnie Williams, a resident of the 20th Judicial District (including Faulkner, Van Buren and Searcy counties), where Byrd is running.
Meanwhile Tim Fox himself — the judge who Bailey sought to challenge — had his license suspended for non-payment of dues in 2013. I’d say a lawsuit against his candidacy for re-election is inevitable. Probably against Rhonda Wood, now running for Supreme Court, too. Plus more.
I’ve been corresponding with a local attorney who argues that the courts who hear the suits against Foster and Byrd — or other similar cases in the future — won’t necessarily be bound by Cole’s ruling (though Fox would be a stickier matter since Cole’s ruling was against Fox’s opponent). Of course, whether or not they pay attention to Cole, other judges may well reach a similar conclusion in these copy-cat cases (my attorney correspondent thinks that’s likely). We may begin to see disqualifications left and right. In any case, the Arkansas Supreme Court will likely eventually need to issue a clear ruling on precisely what the constitutional eligibility requirements for judicial candidates mean. With the election nearing — perhaps sooner than later.
*A previous version of this post incorrectly said that Foster was running for the judgeship to which he was appointed. Appointed judges can’t run for the position to which they were appointed. It also mistakenly said he was appointed to fill Rhonda Wood’s vacated position. Instead, Foster is running for the division in the 20th Circuit that Wood vacated that’s currently held by Judge Amy Brazil.