Tuesday, March 18, 2014

EDITORIAL >> Corruption in judiciary

Circuit Judge Mike Maggio’s offer to withdraw from the race for a seat on the state Court of Appeals after a blogger exposed his misconduct was welcome, but unfortunately it is not nearly enough. The state must take stronger action against the judge to reassure the public that breaching the independence of the judiciary will never be tolerated.

No principle is more firmly stitched into the fabric of the nation’s constitutional system than the impartiality and independence of the judiciary. The public must always have confidence that the courts are free from coercion by the other branches of government or from private interests or else there is no assurance that individual rights will be protected, and that is what the courts are for.

Matt Campbell, the indefatigable blogger who exposed a series of illegalities by Lt. Gov. Mark Darr, forcing his resignation last month, identified Judge Maggio as the author of a string of crude rants against women, minorities, gays and poor people that appeared on a sports website under the pseudonym “Geauxjudge” and as the man who on the same website unlawfully disclosed confidential information about an adoption by actress Charlize Theron in the Faulkner County courtrooms where Maggio presides.

When the state Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission, which sanctions judges who violate the code of judicial ethics, began its investigation, Judge Maggio said he would withdraw from the Court of Appeals race and apologized for the disgusting conduct. Word at the Justice Building was that the commission would not recommend his removal from office if he abandoned the Court of Appeals race because he would leave the bench anyway Jan. 1.

But then Campbell revealed far more serious breaches. A jury in Maggio’s court had awarded $5.2 million to the family of a woman who died in a nursing home from neglect—the nursing home ignored a doctor’s order that the gravely ill woman be taken to the hospital emergency room. The owner of the home and some 68 other nursing homes asked Maggio to throw the verdict out or reduce the damage award, so Maggio reduced it by $4.2 million.

It turned out that when the owner, Michael Morton of Fort Smith, asked the judge to reduce the verdict, Maggio’s campaign asked him to make gifts to Maggio through some seven political action committees that were set up to launder money from corporate interests into Maggio’s election war chest and other candidates for judge. Morton promptly did so and Maggio slashed the verdict.

Money from Morton and other allied nursing home interests accounted for a huge part of Maggio’s political account.

Morton insists that he did nothing wrong and that he did not regard Maggio’s reducing his payout to the family by $4.2 million as a reward for his big campaign checks. It’s just a coincidence, he said. Now the judicial ethics commission is investigating those circumstances, too.

The judicial code prohibits judges and candidates for judge from soliciting campaign contributions. It must be done by a committee that the judge appoints, but he or she must remain ignorant of the donors. Otherwise, the judge will feel immense pressure to favor a donor if he has an interest in a case before the judge, and the public must forever remain confident that judges, whether they are in error or not, make decisions based upon what they believe the law dictates and not to reward supporters and benefactors.

Maggio is a Republican, although candidates for judge no longer run as Democrats, Republicans or independents. His party would be immaterial if it were not for a pattern. Last year, a Republican official announced that political action committees would be formed, somewhat independent of the party, that would raise money for judges who were committed to the Republican philosophy of government.

Reporting by the Arkansas Times over the weekend disclosed that large sums from Morton and other medical and allied corporate interests were flowing into the campaign treasuries of judges and candidates from a judge in Faulkner County who happened to be associated with Republican politics. Also, the gifts are typically made to blind political action committees instead of directly to a candidate’s campaign, so that it is hard for the public to locate the source of a candidate’s money.

In perhaps the worst court decision in 50 years, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled four years ago that corporations, associations and people of wealth had the right to exercise as much influence on elections as their money allowed and to remain anonymous.

Rhonda Wood, a former colleague of Maggio in Faulkner County and a sitting Court of Appeals judge, filed for the Supreme Court this month and got no opponent because it was known she would have a huge campaign treasury from nursing home, medical and other business interests. A circuit judge candidate in Faulkner County got money from the same PACs. Justice Karen Baker, who is running unopposed for another term on the Supreme Court, also benefits.

So why are they so interested in trial and appellate court seats? It is no secret. Donations to legislative candidates in the last decade produced a law that sharply restricted how juries could award judgments for neglect or malpractice. The Arkansas Constitution strictly forbids the legislature from ever passing such laws and the Supreme Court twice in the past three years has struck down portions of the law because the Constitution clearly prohibited them.

If you have an interest in nursing or medical institutions and you can’t get the Constitution changed, the remedy is different judges. For the state, the remedy is to see that the courts are not corrupted in that way.