Supreme Court Justice Rhonda Wood today said contributions her 2014 campaign received from Michael Morton didn’t require her to recuse from cases involving his nursing homes.
A motion for her recusal had been requested in lawsuit in which an issue pending before the Supreme Court is the question of class action certification. The motion to disqualify was filed in September in a case that accuses Morton of understaffing his homes, a situation that has allegedly led to harm to patients. Attorneys for plaintiffs in a wrongful death case, Brian Reddick and Greg Campbell, asked Wood to get off the case because of $40,000 in contribution by Morton homes or related parties to her campaign. A bundle of those contributions were made before the time contributions to judicial campaigns were allowed, through an intermediary soliciting money for Wood, former Sen. Gilbert Baker. But Wood has said the checks didn’t actually reach her until contributions could be received. The money also came as other money went to then-Judge Mike Maggio through multiple Morton-funded PACs. Maggio, an old friend of Wood, has been convicted of taking the money in return for reducing the jury award in a lawsuit against a Morton nursing home. He is appealing and no one else has been charged.
The motion for recusal was referred by the Supreme Court to Wood herself, who denied it an opinion issued today. The pending class action argument was not decided.
Wood said the Code of Judicial Conduct sets out factors to consider in disqualifications: Size of contributions; degree of involvement in a campaign; timing of campaign and the legal proceeding; issues in the proceeding, and other factors.
Considering those, she said, “I conclude that I should remain on the case.”
She said Morton played no role in her campaign and the attorneys had not said she did. She said three years will have elapsed between contributions she received and her making a decision in the case. She said the also hadn’t argued that class action certification was an issue on which her recusal was needed.
I note that I have recused from cases involving significant contributions following each of my campaigns over the past eight yeas until a sufficient cooling-off period passed. I am treating this case and this contributor no differently. Additionally, while Arkansas is a small state and there are occasions for judges to intersect with potential counsel and litigants, I assure appellees and their counsel that I do not have a social or business relationship with Michael Morton or any of the businesses the appellees list.
In all, considering these factors and the surrounding circumstances as well as my duty to sit, I find that it would not be proper to recuse from this case. All judges have a duty to recuse when the situation warrants but we also have an equal duty to sit when the facts do not justify doing otherwise. Injustice occurs when one makes the wrong decision either way, which is why I certainly did not make this decision lightly. Injustice also would occur if litigants could manipulate the makeup of the court.
… I will make decisions impartially on this case and every case that comes before me
At the outset of her opinion, Wood quibbled with campaign contributions cited in the motion for recusal. They said she’d received $40,000, or 30 percent of her campaign money. She said the filing failed to note that she’d returned $20,000 of Morton’s contribution after the money funneled through PACs became controversial. That left the amount at issue on the motion, $20,000, and her analysis of the influence began there.
Wood doesn’t mention that she had to return excess contributions since she had no opponent and she glides over in a recitation of timing that facts in the case before her arose at the time Morton was making her contributions to her.
Strictly speaking, she may be right on her decision. Practically speaking, she’ll forever be known as a judge who owed her impressive opponent-discouraging initial Supreme Court race bankroll to the nursing home industry (almost half counting money from non-Morton nursing homes) and she had many ties in the past to unsavory characters deeply enmeshed in dubious activity (Maggio, convicted of bribery) and Baker (a campaign bagman for her, singled out for thanks at her investiture, who has long been on the payroll of those seeking to limit damage lawsuits against nursing homes). Her record in this and future cases will be evidence to consider in weighing her claim of impartiality on nursing home cases.
PS: Though Wood was on the firing line here, the court is full of members with nursing home money in campaign coffers. The reasoning she outlines here might well serve others.