Federal Judge James Moody Jr. said at the conclusion of a hearing Thursday that he would likely decide by early next week whether to dismiss a class action civil rights lawsuit over Sherwood’s hot check court, which plaintiffs have described as an unconstitutional debtor’s prison.
The ACLU of Arkansas, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and Morrison and Foerster, an international law firm with 16 offices around the world, filed suit against Pulaski County, the city of Sherwood and Judge Milas “Butch” Hale on behalf of five plaintiffs last August. David Koon wrote a cover story on the lawsuit and Judge Hale’s courtroom last year for the Times.
Thursday’s hearing came in the wake of a recommendation by federal Magistrate Judge Joe J. Volpe that the case be dismissed. Volpe said the Younger Abstention Doctrine, established in the 1971 U.S. Supreme Court case Younger v. Harris, made the federal court the wrong jurisdiction for the lawsuit. The doctrine requires federal courts not consider cases where there are ongoing state proceedings.
Plaintiffs attorney Jayson Cohen told Moody that Volpe had misread Younger. Cohen said that none of the plaintiffs had ongoing criminal proceedings at the time the lawsuit was filed. He said that just because a plaintiff owes money doesn’t mean there’s an ongoing criminal proceeding.
But Mike Mosley, an attorney with the Arkansas Municipal League representing the city of Sherwood and Judge Hale, said the plaintiffs’ initial argument in their complaint tied all of the Sherwood court’s post-conviction debt collection efforts to additional charges, which all could be appealed. Additionally, Mosley noted that North Little Rock District Court Judge Jim Hamilton had been appointed to serve as judge on the plaintiffs’ ongoing cases.
Early in the hearing, Moody asked Cohen, “Assuming you stay in this court, what corrective action are you going to ask me to take?” Moody said he was struggling to imagine any relief for plaintiffs beyond a declaratory judgement. No damages or injunctive relief would be applied in such a judgement.
Cohen said it was too early to say, but a declaratory judgement might be sufficient.
Later, Margaret Depper, representing Pulaski County, said that, though the plaintiffs say they only want future relief, if the court declares the Sherwood court’s actions unconstitutional, past convictions could not stand.