by Max Brantley
The Republican lawsuit over state vehicle use by statewide elected officials and House Speaker Robbie Wills was due for an injunction hearing this morning. Circuit Judge Tim Fox heard brief arguments and then announced that while he felt able to rule on a constitutional challenge, that he wanted to hear from lawyers on whether they wanted him to recuse from the case.
Fox is a candidate for state Supreme Court. Johnny Rhoda of Clinton, the plaintiff in the GOP lawsuit, has been an "outspoken" advocate for Fox's opponent, Judge Karen Baker, Fox said. Fox said he'd also spoken in a "derogatory" fashion about Rhoda. The hearing then recessed for attorneys to decide how to proceed.
Afterward, state Republican Chairman Doyle Webb said he had no objection to Fox retaining the case. He said he couldn't go along with a suggestion to transfer the case to Judge Ernest Sanders' fifth division, where another challenge to state vehicle use has been filed, because Sanders was an appointee of Gov. Mike Beebe, a defendant in the GOP lawsuit.
Fox said that he would then hear the case, but said he couldn't schedule a hearing until after the election because he had no time on his docket. He said that included time for a hearing on an injunction this morning. Fox said that if the parties got started, their arguments likely would be cut short by other scheduled matters.
The lawsuit claims that cars provided state officials and the speaker amount to unconstitutional income supplements. Neither Beebe nor Attorney General Dustin McDaniel have state cars for personal use. The State Police chauffeur the governor in a state car under its statutory obligation to provide security for the governor.
Earlier in the election season, the Republican Party sent out a list of recommended judicial candidates, compiled by a "chairman's committee." Fox was among those recommended.
Afterward, Webb said he'd be subpoenaing income tax records of defendants in the case. He said he was comfortable with Fox's continuing on the case and also with a delay in the ruling until after the election. He said he was confident Fox would expedite matters to the extent possible.