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Judicial politics

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Appeals Court Judge Karen Baker has announced she won't accept campaign contributions from lawyers who practice before her through her campaign to win a state Supreme Court vacancy. She calls on her opponents, currently only Circuit Judge Tim Fox has announced, to do the same.

This does not mean Baker won't accept contributions from other lawyers, including those who might share firms and offices with people who practice before her or lawyers who've been before her in the past. A spokesman said it was impossible to predict the future, but that the judge would consider recusal in the future should a campaign backer turn up as counsel in her courtroom at some point in the future.

Lawyers traditionally are the primary engine of judicial campaign financing. It's a dilemma. Anyone seeming to put a limitation on it likely will be viewed positively. (More positively still if they vowed to take NO contributions from lawyers.) But don't mistake the strategy at work here. An appeals court judge sees a relatively small number of lawyers over the course of the year. A trial judge in the state's biggest county sees many, many more. Baker is attempting to make a strength out of expected financial weakness.

CAMPAIGN NEWS RELEASE

Today, the Judge Karen Baker for Supreme Court campaign committee announced a commitment to not accept political donations from private attorneys who appear before Judge Baker.  Baker, currently serving her 9th year on the Arkansas Court of Appeals, is running for the seat vacated by Justice Annabelle Clinton Imber on the Arkansas Supreme Court.  Citing a growing state and national concern with the potential conflict of interest created by certain political contributions to judicial candidates, the campaign pledged to hold itself to a higher ethical standard.

“I simply don’t feel it would be proper to accept contributions from private attorneys who appear before my court,” stated Judge Karen Baker.  “It is a small step, but I believe it is an important one.”

In 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court in Caperton v. Massey ruled that a West Virginia Supreme Court justice could not participate in a case, involving an executive who had given $3 million to his campaign, because the “probability of bias” violated the litigant’s right to a fair trial.  In addition, a 2009 USA Today / Gallup Poll revealed that more than 90% of Americans, “believe judges should not hear cases involving individuals or groups that contributed to their campaign.” 

Arkansas law currently prohibits judicial candidates from directly soliciting contributions and prohibits fundraising until 180 days before the election, but has yet to provide specific guidelines concerning this issue.  The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Caperton raises additional difficulties to the underlying dilemma: the challenge to balance the need for financing an effective campaign with the ethical mandate to avoid even the appearance of impropriety.

“It is a very challenging issue that we face as a sate and as a nation.  A major contributor to a given judicial candidate has the potential to wield undue influence once that candidate takes the bench, said Andre McNeil, a retired Circuit/Chancery Judge.  “At the same time, a judge can have enormous influence on people who appear before their court.  When a judge is also a candidate for office, whether it is real or perceived, there can be enormous pressure placed on the attorneys who regularly appear before the judge to also make a contribution to his or her campaign,” McNeil concluded. 

“It is not an easy problem to solve, but I think everyone can agree that a person should never have to consider how one’s personal political contributions may or may not effect their case before a given judge,” said Marcus Vaden, president of the Arkansas Prosecuting Attorney’s Association and the current Prosecuting Attorney for the 20th District.  “I applaud Judge Baker for making this pro-active, common sense commitment.”

“We believe judicial candidates should be held to a higher standard,” said campaign manager Heath Oakley.  “Our campaign committee is making a good faith commitment to the voters of Arkansas and we would simply ask our opponent, Judge Tim Fox, to join us.”

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