JUDGE VANN SMITH: Can't explain Supreme Court resistance to local court case assignemtn plan.

Another division on the Arkansas Supreme Court emerged on an administrative matter.

A brief order today approved the administrative plans of all the circuit and district courts in Arkansas save one — the Sixth Judicial District, which is based in Little Rock and covers Pulaski and Perry Counties.

The order simply listed all the circuit plans as having been approved, with one omission, though it wasn’t highlighted. Three justices separately concurred with the order.

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Justice Karen Baker wrote: “I concur with the majority and write separately because I would approve all of the administrative plans for the circuit courts and the district courts.” Justices Robin Wynne and Jo Hart joined her concurrence.

In short, that means Chief Justice Dan Kemp and Justices Rhonda Wood, Courtney Goodson and Shawn Womack did not approve of the Sixth Circuit plan.

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Judge Vann Smith, chief judge of the Sixth Circuit, said he had no insight into the reason for the disapproval. He said the plan was developed by the 17 judges in the district and approved by 14 of them. He said it largely mirrors the previous administrative plan in assignment of caseload. Because of the size of the district, some judges handle juvenile cases exclusively, some handle no criminal cases, some handle a mix of criminal and civil case and there is a single drug/veterans court judge.

(Disclosure: My wife retired almost five years ago as a judge in the circuit, where she primarily handled domestic and probate cases. She substitutes on occasion in those and other circuit courts in the state by assignment. She had no role in developing the administrative plan.)

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Judge Smith said the Pulaski courts had worked out the plans in a similar fashion since the passage of Amendment 80 on the courts in 2000.

One small change in the plan under submission, Smith said, was inclusion of an acknowledgment of a Supreme Court order that Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen would not hear capital cases. This is on account of the controversy that arose from his ruling in a property rights case over execution drugs on a day in which he later took part in a demonstration at the Governor’s Mansion that included death penalty opponents. That incident has led to dueling ethics complaints against Griffen and the Supreme Court for its action in removing Griffen from the case without a hearing. Smith said Griffen approved the administrative plan, but objected to his removal from capital cases.  Four other Pulaski judges also signed a letter saying they didn’t want their approval of the plan to be interpreted as agreement with the Supreme Court order against Griffen.

Smith said the exceptions to the approval of the local plan primarily arose from a couple of judges’ difference of opinion on the number of judges necessary to be assigned full-time to juvenile court (now three). Prosecuting Attorney Larry Jegley also proposed putting all criminal cases in three courts, rather than the five now used.

I’ve asked Chief Justice Kemp for information on what problem might be perceived in the Sixth District plan and what happens next.  He replied:  “The 6th is still under consideration by the Court. It’s a pending matter. No comment.”

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Smith said he was uncertain how the process would unfold. He said, for the time being, the existing administrative plan on assignments to judges will stay in place. The Supreme Court has the power to draw a plan of its own. There are many local considerations, including five so-called subdistricts in which judges are elected from small districts with African-American majority populations but the judges, all African-Americans, have jurisdiction in all cases.

I’d learned last week that there was an unexplained holdup in court approval of all the administrative plans, but I didn’t know then that it  boiled down to a disagreement on the Pulaski plan.

The Supreme Court, according to multiple sources, has been roiled by division.

For example, I learned last week that, for the time being, the Court had ceased holding conferences on pending cases on a weekly basis but were voting by e-mail on account of sometimes heated disagreements. Those disagreements are so widely known that legislators have been talking about it, particularly conservatives unhappy with some Supreme Court decisions delaying executions.

Here’s Vann Smith’s letter to the court on the proposed administrative plan, including the various objections that were raised locally. It notes that Smith had heard there was some interest at the court in dividing all cases regardless of type equally among the 17 judges, which his letter said would create “chaos.”

The Supreme Court did approve the district court administrative plan in Pulaski County.