Friday, January 16, 2015

EDITORIAL >> A corrupt Judiciary

Faulkner County Circuit Judge Mike Maggio’s admission this month that he took bribes before slicing $4.2 million from a jury’s award to the family of a woman who died from negligence in a Conway nursing home was a severe wound to the reputation of the courts in our fair state. We hope it was not a mortal one, for the founders considered confidence in an independent judiciary to be the bedrock of democracy.

People must know that the courts, regardless of whether their decisions are wise or popular, act according to what they think the Constitution and the laws dictate, uninfluenced by the parties to suits or by officials of the executive and legislative branches of government.

This case, we fear, is bigger than one corrupt trial judge, whose career had already crashed upon the discovery last spring that he was the author of vile and unethical posts on a Louisiana sports blog composed under the pseudonym “Geauxjudge.” Among other perfidies, he had revealed the identity of an adoptive parent and the circumstances of the child in a confidential adoption proceeding before him, in violation of the law.

Judge Maggio’s admission that he had saved the nursing home owners $4.2 million after getting a flood of campaign money from the principal owner and in direct response to the money was something of a shock—shock that he would admit it. He had explained last summer, when the big checks to him came to light, that the gifts and his order slashing the jury’s verdict were just a coincidence.

But after federal agents found text messages and emails between Maggio linking the campaign checks and his action in the negligence case, the judge owned up to the quid pro quo. Now, we can presume that he will implicate the others, who were identified in the indictment only as Individual A and Individual B. They are believed to be Michael Morton of Fort Smith, owner of the largest chain of nursing homes in the state, and former state senator and Republican state chairman Gilbert Baker, a lobbyist and consultant who seems to have arranged the checks from Morton to Maggio through a passel of political-action committees that were set up to skirt the campaign-finance laws and keep the donors secret.

Morton has said all the checks to Maggio and to other candidates for trial and appellate courts and the new attorney general were written merely in the interest of having good judges and that he never expected anything in return for any of them. Baker has refused to talk about any of it. He had arranged campaign gifts for a number of Republicans running for judgeships as well as the Republican candidate for attorney general, Leslie Rutledge.

Judge Maggio, urged by Baker, was running for the state Court of Appeals last spring. He had raised quite a bundle of money, much of it from Morton and other nursing home owners, when the blog postings and a Democratic blogger’s revelations about Morton’s secret gifts came to light. Although unopposed at that point, he withdrew from the Court of Appeals race, and when the state Judicial Ethics Commission took up the matters, he promised never to run for a judicial office again. Then the Supreme Court ordered him off the bench immediately and his pay stopped.

Alas, this is bigger than Mike Maggio, who not only suffers disgrace but who surely will spend some time in the federal penitentiary. But we had been warned.

When he retired from the Supreme Court more than two years ago, Supreme Court Justice Robert L. Brown wrote an Arkansas Law Review article in which he warned that the Arkansas judiciary was about to be corrupted by a wash of money into judicial campaigns from groups with axes to grind. It had happened in Texas, California and other states that elect their judges and he saw signs of it in Arkansas. It would be the end, in our parts, of the independent judiciary that Hamilton, Madison and others considered vital to a functioning republic.

David Stewart, who was retiring as the head of the state Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission, uttered the same warning. The Arkansas Democrat Gazette editorial page savaged Brown repeatedly for his article because, it said, he was simply opposed to business and conservative groups electing judges who would favor their interests.

Maggio was not the only judge who received huge sums from Morton, the nursing home industry and other groups interested in the outcome of personal-injury, wrongful-death and product-safety lawsuits.

Judge Rhonda Wood of Conway, an associate of Maggio and whose seat on the Court of Appeals he was about to take, got $49,000 very early for her Supreme Court race that was directly traceable to Morton and $76,000 from the entire industry. She raised so much money that no one ran against her and she was sworn in last week. More about that in a moment.

Three other Supreme Court candidates — two of whom, Karen Baker and Robin Wynne, were sworn in with Justice Wood — received large gifts from Morton and others in the industry, far more than the $2,000 that is supposed to be an individual’s limit. Justices Courtney Henry and Jo Hart received big campaign donations in their races in 2010 and 2012. If you’re counting, that’s five of the seven justices who now form the Supreme Court.

This may be pertinent: The legislature in 2003, at Senator Baker’s urging, passed a law making it harder for people to get large money judgments for wrongful death, negligence or unsafe products. In separate lawsuits, the Supreme Court unanimously struck down the two major provisions because they conflicted with the state Constitution, which says the legislature may not in any way restrict people’s right to recover for their injuries. If the court had upheld the law, the jury could not have awarded the big judgment for the family of the woman who died of neglect in Morton’s home.

When she was sworn in last week, Justice Wood volunteered a most strange comment. She suggested that she would not be declaring acts of the legislature unconstitutional with the willingness of past courts. Her donors, we are sure, sighed with relief. This, we are afraid, is the brave new world we are in.