INTERTWINED: Attorneys had argued that Justice Rhonda Wood's communication with former Republican Sen. Gilbert Baker on a controversial nursing home case that led to indictment of her friend Mike Maggio, then a circuit judge, should make her get off a pending case involving the same nursing home owner in the Maggio case. The Supreme Court refused today to hold a hearing or review her decision to stay on the case.
The Arkansas Supreme Court
today rejected a challenge to Justice Rhonda Wood's
participation in a nursing home lawsuit
because of significant contributions to her judicial campaign
by the owner of the nursing home.
In December, the Supreme Court refused to have oral arguments in the case and said it would decide the issue on written arguments Today, in an unsigned order in which Wood did not participate, the court denied all pending motions, including a request for an evidentiary hearing on Wood's refusal to get off the case and a request for the entire court to do a "neutral review."
MICHAEL MORTON: Fort Smith nursing home magnate funnels huge amounts of cash into campaigns of judicial candidates, including Justice Rhonda Wood.
Pending before the Supreme Court is a request for a class action certification in a lawsuit alleging poor care by the Robinson Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, owned by Michael Morton
of Fort Smith. Lawyers for the plaintiffs don't want Wood to hear the case because Morton contributed $40,000 to her campaign. Combined with other nursing home contributions about half the money raised by Wood came from nursing homes. Her money was raised by Gilbert Baker, who also helped raise contributions for Wood's friend, former Judge Mike Maggio. Maggio pleaded guilty to reducing a $5.2 million judgment against a Morton nursing home in return for the money, though he has since tried to withdraw the plea. No one else has been charged, but evidence gathered during that investigation show frequent communication between Baker and Wood during the relevant time.
In November, Wood said circumstances
didn't require her to recuse from the case. She said enough time had passed and Morton hadn't had a significant role in the 2014 campaign. She also said the attorneys, Brian Reddick and Greg Campbell, hadn't argued that the class action was an issue on which recusal was necessary.
After Wood issued that opinion, the attorneys asked for a neutral review by the whole court. She said there's evidence of bias in the Maggio case reflected in what Baker said Wood had told him about the verdict reduction by Maggio. Baker gave sworn testimony in a civil lawsuit over the verdict reduction. They said her participation presents a "horrible" appearance of conflict in being at the center of characters in the scandfal. They also challenged her representation she didn't know campaign contributors because she'd signed the finance reports that contained that information. The Supreme Court recently adopted new rules
of conduct that no longer prevent a judge such as Wood from knowing who contributes to her campaign. It also spurned a recommendation from the Arkansas Bar Association to adopt specific standards for recusal based on campaign supporters. Instead, the court, including Wood, adopted this standard:
The fact that a lawyer in a proceeding, or a litigant, contributed to the judge's campaign, or publicly supported the judge in his or her election does not of itself disqualify the judge. However, the size of contributions, the degree of involvement in the campaign, the timing of the campaign and the proceeding, the issues involved in the proceeding, and other factors known to the judge may raise questions as to the judge's impartiality
The court hasn't released a copy of the order yet and so I don't know if there's any commentary beyond the denial, which is often the case in so-called per curiam orders.
This may not be the end of the matter, though it completes the issue of Wood's participation at the state level. There's precedent for challenging a judge's participation in a federal lawsuit.
UPDATE: The unsigned order was a one-sentence denial without elaboration.