The stench of undue political influence in judicial races in Arkansas never seems to wane.
- In federal court former Republican Party leader and senator Gilbert Baker awaits trial on bribery charges related to his action as a conduit for political contributions for nursing home magnate Michael Morton to numerous judicial races, including Arkansas Supreme Court. Baker filed a request Monday for more time to prepare for the complicated trial, currently scheduled in April. He also wants a judge, not a jury, to try him, in part because of such questions as whether judicial ethics had a bearing on actions in the case. (A lack of them certainly did.) Additionally, he wants to be able to drink alcohol (in moderation, his wife as sobriety warden.) He’s been through rehab and says he’s now safe to drink a bit
Former judge Mike Maggio is serving a federal sentence for pleading guilty to taking money Baker provided to induce him to reduce a jury verdict against a Morton-owned nursing home by $4.2 million. Morton has not been charged and insists he merely provided contributions to good judicial candidates.
- Morton continues to make political contributions, though you’d think candidates might be reluctant to accept them given the aroma. It has become an issue in a Saline County circuit judge race, as illustrated by a campaign mailer shown above. There, Josh Newton has pocketed $2,000 from Morton (plus $250 from another nursing home operator). Chump change by Morton standards. But challenger Brent Houston is making hay of the association.
- Morton hasn’t turned up so far in the race for Arkansas Supreme Court (outside of the nursing home PAC’s contribution to Barbara Webb), but the stench of special interest politics is overpowering there all the same, with the brazen corporate/tort reform lobby effort to elect Barbara Webb over experienced Circuit Judge Chip Welch because she’d be expected to deliver limits on damage lawsuits that the state chamber of commerce and its fellow travelers have been unable to achieve through constitutional change. Smellier still is Webb’s overtly partisan campaign for a non-partisan seat, with endorsements and/or money from Republican committees, Gov. Asa Hutchinson, Sen. Tom Cotton and her ethically challenged husband, Republican Party chair Doyle Webb. Understand that it is not wholly off base to link Barbara Webb to Doyle. She was a prosecutor in Saline County back in the days when he was preying on old ladies’ estates and she also is a beneficiary of his business dealings, which have included tax delinquencies on rental properties among other question marks over the years. Nor has she repudiated the tidal wave of paid support she’s getting from the Republican State Leadership Committee, an essentially opaque special interest PAC devoted to electing judges unfriendly to people damaged by doctors, nursing homes and corporations and friendly to Republicans. John Brummett, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist, wrote today why he intends to vote for Welch, noting the mockery the Webbs are making of what is supposed to be a non-partisan position. The award for hypocrite of the year goes to Doyle Webb. Making judgeships non-partisan was a law change that Doyle Webb once championed as a state senator, nominally to promote accountability and confidence in the impartiality of the judiciary. (As merited as the change was, it really was about depriving the Democratic Party of fat filing fees paid by the then-overwhelmingly Democratic judiciary.)
We should not elect judges, by party or otherwise. But voters, particularly those with deep pockets, like the current format just fine.
UPDATE: Coverage from Fort Smith of Morton spending in local judgeship races