A motion filed before the Arkansas Supreme Court asks that Justice Rhonda Wood not hear the appeal of a nursing home damage case because of the campaign contributions made to her campaign by the owner of the nursing home in the case, Michael Morton of Fort Smith.
It further asks that she disqualify from “any” cases that might affect Morton or his nursing home businesses. This would seem to at least tangentially raise the question of Wood’s participation in two pending lawsuits attempting to have the Supreme Court disqualify a proposed constitutional amendment backed by Morton and other nursing homes to severely limit damages to injured people and attorney fees in nursing home and other health-related injury cases.
The case involves the Robinson Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Pulaski County, wholly owned by Morton, who owns about 70 nursing homes in the state. The lawsuit alleges the center is chronically understaffed and says that’s a deceptive trade practice. The argument for recusal:
It is well known that Michael Morton and his companies, including the defendants in this case, contribute large sums of money to judicial races to support judicial candidates he believes will be sympathetic to his cause and his desire to prevent nursing home residents from exercising their constitutional right to a jury trial and to limit damages available to the most vulnerable in our society. Michael Morton is also the leading proponent of an initiated act to limit non-economic damages for nursing residents abused and neglected in the nursing homes he owns.
The filing also mentions Morton’s contributions through a PAC that were intended to benefit Judge Mike Maggio in a race for Court of Appeals. The race didn’t develop because Maggio resigned from the bench. He later pleaded guilty to bribery, in the form of those campaign contributions, to reduce a verdict against a Morton nursing home from $5.2 to $4 million. Maggio is trying to appeal. Morton was never charged and has denied wrongdoing.
The lawsuit notes that Gilbert Baker, who arranged the PAC money for Maggio, worked to raise money for other candidates, particularly Wood, a friend of both Baker and Maggio and a fellow Conway resident. When she was sworn in as justice, she singled out Gilbert Baker and trial lawyer John Goodson for helping her.
As reported previously, pre-trial testimony in a civil lawsuit against Baker and Morton showed that Morton wrote checks to the Wood campaign before contributions legally could be made, then the dates were changed. Wood has said she didn’t receive the money until the legal period for contributions had begun.
In all, the testimony showed 20 checks for $2,000 each from either Morton or companies he owned or controlled to Wood’s campaign. That $40,000 represented roughly 30 percent of the contributions to Wood’s campaign. We’ve reported before that more than half of Wood’s initial campaign fund-raising, a big haul that helped discourage opposition for her race, came from Morton and other nursing home operators.
The filing notes that the change of the date on the Robinson Center check was raised in both the civil suit and the federal prosecution of Maggio.
The recusal notion cites judicial ethics rules that say judges should always act in a way that promotes public confidence and “shall” disqualify from any proceeding “in which the judge’s impartiality might reasonably be questioned.” The circumstances here might cause the public to “reasonably question” Justice Wood’s impartiality, the motion says.
The motion asks Wood to recuse not only from this case, but significantly from “any case involving Michael Morton or his nursing homes as well as any other nursing home case the decision of which might affect Michael Morton and/or his nursing home businesses.”
Two suits have been filed over the nursing home relief amendment. One is by a committee of the Arkansas Bar Association, which says the ballot title doesn’t sufficiently inform voters of the dramatic change in law the amendment would engender. Another, by a grassroots group led by nursing home quality advocate Martha Deaver, questions the validity of signatures on petitions for the ballot, as well as the ballot title.
The lawyers filing the motion are Brian Reddick and Brent Moss of Little Rock. They included as exhibits Wood’s campaign finance report and copies of checks written by Morton companies to her campaign.
A civil case in Faulkner County earlier detailed the connections between Wood, Baker and Morton. At that time, she distanced herself from Baker’s activities and said she knew nothing of when checks were written, only when received for her 2014 race. She also said this:
I also recused off nursing home cases, without regard to whether anyone associated with that particular nursing home ever made a contribution, following my first court of appeals race in 2010. I have now lifted this recusal as sufficient years have passed.
I will note there were exceptions in nursing home workers comp cases and unemployment cases. Given the nature of the claim and the standard of review in agency cases, I did go ahead and rule on a few of those at the court of appeals to assist my colleagues. I believe the few that I heard resulted in rulings against the nursing homes.
Here’s more from the archives on the many ways money from Morton and others have flowed to lobby groups and politicians to influence the law and court cases on nursing home negligence.
Past reporting indicates Morton has put roughly $250,000 alone into the campaign led by the Arkansas nursing home lobby to put an amendment on the ballot to limit non-economic damages to as little as $250,000, with a cap on attorney fees at a third of an award.
There’s no law in Arkansas of which I’m aware relative to if or when judges should disqualify on account of campaign contributions. Lawyers typically make up the bulk of judicial campaign contributions, and they often appear before judges to whom they’ve contributed. In theory, campaign committees handle the money, not judicial candidates, but nobody believes they are unaware of the sources. Wood, in fact, defended her contributions because of her long association with the “medical community” thanks to a spouse who’s a doctor. Actually, save a single doctor’s contribution, her medical community contributions were virtually all nursing homes.
The American Bar Association has urged states to adopt rules for recusal procedures that take into account campaign expenditures — including “dark money” independent expenditures. The Conference of Chief Justices supported the idea.
A significant signal was sent in 2009 when the U.S. Supreme Court reversed a West Virginia Supreme Court ruling because of immense contributions from one of the parties, a coal baron, to the campaign of one of the justices who ruled in his favor. As summarized by the National Center for State Courts, “the risk of actual bias was ‘sufficiently substantial’ to require that justice’s disqualification under the Due Process Clause of the U.S. Constitution.”
As of this morning, there’d been no response entered in the record to the recusal motion, filed last Tuesday.
Rhonda Wood is not alone, by the way. Justice Courtney Goodson got $91,000 from the nursing home lobby in a race for court in 2010. Justices Robin Wynne, Karen Baker and Jo Hart also have received nursing home money — $7,000, $20,000 and $23,000, respectively, in recent races. Jo Hart thanked Michael Morton for his help when she joined the Supreme Court.
POLITICAL DEVELOPMENT: The religious right Family Council, which has some pulling power through a network of churches, says it will oppose the nursing home amendment. It told the AP that the measure would allow nursing homes to abuse patients and get away with it.