The subject of judicial election — and the corrosive effect of fund-raising on the process — is in the news nationally as well as in Arkansas.
Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court will review decisions from four appeals courts that have struck down state bans on direct solicitations for money by judges as impermissible limits on 1st Amendment speech rights.
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Thirty of the 39 states that elect judges, including Arkansas, have rules that prohibit direct solicitations by judges or judicial candidates. The organized bar thinks this builds confidence in the system. Others say that campaigning is a fact of life and the use of a committee to raise money is only an artifice.
The recent experience in Arkansas is instructive. Mike Maggio knew he was getting campaign financial help from a Fort Smith nursing home owner, Michael Morton, when he chopped $4.2 million off a jury verdict against one of Morton’s nursing homes. There’s no evidence Maggio solicited Michael Morton directly. That was done by an intermediary, former Republican Sen. Gilbert Baker, who served as an intermediary in this and a number of other judicial races.
Is there really any doubt that the other six candidates for Supreme Court who received varying pots of Morton money (five were elected) knew about the money raised by their committees sooner or later? Certainly Rhonda Wood did. She got half her total initial campaign haul from nursing homes, mostly Morton’s. Her big initial haul undoubtedly helped discourage opponents in what proved to be an unopposed candidacy.
I suspect some Arkansas judges have solicited money directly, despite the supposed ethical ban. One lawyer told me of being directly solicited during a trial recess by the presiding judge, who was planning a race for a higher court. Or so the story went. That judge is retired now, by the way.
Speaking of Michael Morton: I talked yesterday of the Democrat-Gazette reporting that showed he’d pumped $1.2 million — at least — into state level political races in recent years. If you’ve time this quiet King/Lee holiday, you might plug his name into the Federal Election Commission search database. You’ll find he’s contributed another couple hundred thousand into federal races, party committees and the nursing home PAC. Tom Cotton and Tim Griffin in recent years, among others.
One thing is safe to conclude from the record: nursing homes are profitable.
Another thing safe to conclude is the ill effect of corporate money in all levels of the political process, abetted by the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United. And, if the court remains convinced money is speech, then surely judicial speech is speech, too, right?