by Max Brantley
Filling the vacancy created by Willard Proctor's removal from the bench is going to have the expected racial controversy.
Proctor held a seat representing a majority black district created by the so-called Hunt decree, which settled a lawsuit over allegations that judicial elections in Arkansas discriminated against blacks.
The seat will be on the ballot this year, but Gov. Mike Beebe must appoint an interim judge. And, in a related development, Circuit Judge Mary McGowan, who is white, has apparently won support of a majority of other Pulaski circuit judges to take over the cases assigned to Proctor, including a criminal caseload that generated probationers for Proctor's problematic Cycle Breakers probation program. She also wants to move into his courtroom. Proctor's successor would take her courtroom and most of her caseload, a mix of civil and domestic cases, but not her drug court cases. Cases are not distributed by law, but by plans developed by the local judges (17 in Pulaski county) and then approved by the Supreme Court. A new plan for Pulaski just took effect Jan. 1.
(Disclosure: My wife is a circuit judge. She did not sign the proposed case reassignment plan. At a public meeting this week, she was quoted as saying the judges should first seek an attorney general's opinion on how the Hunt decree applied to the situation.)
Stage set? Now comes Wendell Griffen, the black former appeals court judge who has already been critical of Gov. Beebe's failure to appoint a black in his first two appointments to Supreme Court openings. He's distributed a batch of petitions in the name of the ad hoc Committee to Preserve the Hunt Decree.
1. To Chief Justice Jim Hannah: An objection -- without "active involvement" of Proctor's replacement -- to a reassignment of Proctor's cases to another judge; a move of another judge into Proctor's larger courtroom; altering of the employment status of any of Proctor's sizeable staff.
2. To Gov. Mike Beebe: A suggestion that he hurry an interim appointment because the delay has "emboldened" those who want to implement a change in assignment plans without input from the district's judge.
3. To Vann Smith, administrative judge of Pulaski courts: An objection to reassignment of cases, courtrooms or staff until a replacement judge for Proctor could take part.
All are in the form of petitions, which Griffen said were delivered today with signatures from black registered voters. The copies he distributed to media didn't include any names but his own.
UPDATE: Unrelated to this directly, but rumors are bubbling about a potential legal action by Proctor over his removal for ethical violations. Some argue in his behalf that equal protection and due process rights were violated in the legal proceeding against him. At the end of that road, however, still remains his monumental, serial misjudgments in creating a debtor's prison to fund the private nonprofit he created.
UPDATE II: Indeed, Proctor did file a federal lawsuit yesterday attempting to block his removal and to allow him to get on this year's ballot for election. Constitutional issues and racial discrimination are at the core of the lawsuit. No defense offered for his indefensible actions.