A formal ceremony was held today to add two new justices — Robin Wynne and Rhonda Wood — to the Arkansas Supreme Court. Both had been judges on the Arkansas Court of Appeals.
Wynne beat Tim Cullen to take the seat held by retiring Justice Donald Corbin. Wood was unopposed for a seat vacated when Justice Robert Brown retired. He’d been replaced in the interim by Cliff Hoofman, who’s been appointed by Gov. Mike Beebe to serve in the interim in Wood’s old seat. Another former Senate pal of Beebe, Mike Kinard, will hold Wynne’s Court of Appeals seat until the next election.
Justice Karen Baker was also sworn in today for a full term. With Justices Courtney Goodson and Jo Hart, women now constitute a majority of the seven-member Court for the first time. Goodson, with Hart assisting, administered the oath to Baker. Court tea leaf readers may take from that what they will. Retired Justice Annabelle Imber Tuck gave the oath to Wood. Chief Justice Jim Hannah gave the oath to Wynne.
Unanswered today were questions about when and who will decide the pending appeal of Circuit Judge Chris Piazza’s ruling invalidating the state’s statutory and constitutional bans on same-sex marriage. Until now, the official position of the court has been that the case will have to be taken to a conference of the court again so that at least Wynne can vote in place of Corbin. A special justice was named to sit for Hoofman when he recused from the case and the official position has been that the special judge, Robert McCorkindale, would stay on the case until its conclusion. But a vote of the Supreme Court could change that. I’ve yet to find an analogous case where a special judge stayed on a case after a new judge was elected but before the special judge had participated in a ruling on the case.
If Wood does end up replacing the special justice, her remarks at her investiture today might be telling. As paraphrased by photographer Brian Chilson, she said she believes acts of legislature are constitutional and the court should refrain from overturning them when constitutionally possible. Judge Piazza found it constitutionally impossible to uphold the legislature’s and voters’ ban on same-sex marriage. Dozens of judges nationwide have ruled similarly.
The newly constituted Supreme Court will hold its first conference tomorrow. At this point, it’s not known if any procedural guidance on the marriage case will be forthcoming prior to a final ruling, by whichever judges participate.