It took a while, but with money, brute political force and heaping doses of dishonesty the Republican Party took control of the U.S. Supreme Court. The political agenda was already at work through the shadow docket and curbs on executive power wielded by Democrats before the news of the destruction of abortion rights.
The same thing is happening at the state level. See the Arkansas Supreme Court.
Justice Rhonda Wood was a pioneer of the Republican takeover of the courts and set a template for others. She used a robocalling Mike Huckabee and a campaign rooted in county Republican committee appearances to get elected in 2014. And there was so much more in her case. The recent bribery trial of her political campaign bagman, former Republican Party chair Gilbert Baker, left an enduring black mark on the judiciary. The tawdry affair included powerful doses of special interest nursing home money, sleazy lobbyists, dubious PACs, illegal straw contributions, illegally early contributions to Wood’s campaign and Wood’s convenient memory loss about communications during the critical period with her erstwhile pal former judge Mike Maggio, now a convicted felon. This apparently caused no concern for the judicial discipline panel that reviewed a detailed and persuasive complaint. No justification was given.
Then came former Republican Sen. Shawn Womack, a devoted partisan who seems more interested in political machinations than the law. He joined the court in 2016.
Then came Barbara Webb, lightly qualified except by her marriage to former Republican Party Chair Doyle Webb, who’d worked for years to elect judges to the GOP’s political liking. The Republican campaign strategy worked for her in 2020.
In the interim, Republican national dark money defeated Justice Courtney Hudson’s run for chief justice, but it failed to defeat her re-election bid in 2018 when the spending was for David Sterling.
This brings us to today. Sterling and former Republican Party director Chris Carnahan are challenging the re-election of Justice Robin Wynne. Former Republican senator Gunner DeLay is challenging Justice Karen Baker.
The national dark money groups haven’t entered these races as yet as I’d expected, though the prediction now is that it will emerge if there’s a runoff between one of the Republicans and Wynne in November.
All the Republicans are whistling from the same dog training book. They are “conservatives” and “textualists” and “originalists.” Some of them wrap themselves in Donald Trump. Gun waving is popular. Clarence Thomas is their kind of judge.
The advertising by mail has been disingenuous with Carnahan and DeLay taking a wrecking ball to judicial propriety. In DeLay’s case, in particular, if his actions go unchallenged by the judicial discipline agency, they might as well shut it down.
Judicial ethics rules say judges should not only rule impartially but appear to be impartial. DeLay is a monument to flouting that rule. Consider Canon 4 of the Code of Judicial Conduct:
Then behold DeLay. His Facebook page is full of endorsements by Republican politicians, each one carefully identifying a former officeholder as a REPUBLICAN. Example:
He proudly announces his support from Mike Huckabee, father of the likely next governor, Sarah Sanders, who will have many cases before the Supreme Court, and Arkansas Right to Life, certain to be interested in future court battles in Arkansas. If the law makes criminals of women receiving medication abortion pills by mail or those who’d help a woman travel to another state for an abortion, do you think they could expect a fair hearing from an Arkansas Right to Life candidate?
He touts his love of Donald Trump and Clarence Thomas, in answers to survey questions from the anti-abortion, anti-LGBT, hateful Family Council. He bridles at his opponent’s suggestion that using the word “conservative” somehow stretches the appearance of impartiality. He accepts money from Republican PACs. He’s ranting about the Supreme Court decision, in which Baker joined the majority, that said the Arkansas Constitution and law gave school boards the power to set health guidelines, such as requiring masks during a deadly pandemic. This, by the way, is yet another proclamation he’s made on an issue he might have to consider as a judge
Carnahan is not much better. His partisan and fat cat roots are clear enough. Just check his campaign finance reports. In April, $3,150 from the state Republican Party; $2,900 from Republican billionaire Ron Cameron, and individual contributions from former Republican legislator Dean Elliott and former Republican candidate Scott Wallace. In March, you find $2,900 from Jim Walton; $2,900 from the Faulkner County Republican Committee, and $500 from the Clark County Republican Committee. His reports are littered with other Republican money and, of course, big business money.
Check out his mailer:
Matt Bishop, a Fayetteville lawyer, commented after seeing this mailer:
This right here is a an Arkansas judicial candidate, Carnahan, signaling he’s pro-insurer & nursing home. He’s going to let the legislature’s donors run roughshod over ordinary people’s rights.
Yes, tort reform has “suffered” because past members of the Arkansas Supreme Court applied strict construction to the original language of the Arkansas Constitution that guarantees the right of injured people to seek redress in court. The legislature — and Republicans like Carnahan — aren’t much in favor of that.
When they talk strict construction, expect them to be more malleable — as the current U.S. Supreme Court is — on such matters as equal rights, access to courts, the sanctity of voting rights and more.
Sterling, too, is sucking up Republican dollars — $2,900 from the State Republican Party, $1,000 from the Saline County and Boone County Republican Committees and $500 from the Clark County GOP He’s also gotten $1,000 from Lisenee Rockefeller and $2,900 from the infamous nursing home mogul Michael Morton.
Did I mention that races for Supreme Court are nominally non-partisan, in part thanks to the Republican Party? It pushed for non-partisan elections in part to deprive the Democratic Party of fat judicial filing fees, then mostly coming from Democrats. They might as well return to the old system, given how thoroughly partisan races have become.
Bottom line: Any litigant looking at the record of campaign mailers and political contributors could be forgiven for believing Carnahan, Sterling or DeLay would NOT be impartial in cases involving Democrats or issues that are part of GOP dogma. If they were to judge fairly, some other Republican would come after them in the next election.
With this bunch on the bench, women, liberals, public health advocates and more would do well to follow the old nuclear war command: Bend over, put your head between your legs and kiss your ass goodbye.