Columns » Max Brantley

All over but the judging

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Happy day. Unless there's a runoff somewhere out in the state, judicial elections are over for another year.

I wrote this before polls closed, but could Arkansas have had a better illustration of the folly of electing judges than this year?

The fun started with Circuit Judge Mike Maggio of Conway. He was headed to unopposed election to the Arkansas Court of Appeals until word surfaced that he'd said sexist, bigoted, stupid things — repeatedly — on an LSU fan website. He also revealed confidential matters in his court.

He probably could have dodged that indiscretion but for an even more unseemly happening. With help from Republican political fixer Gilbert Baker, a nursing home jillionaire in Fort Smith pushed a bunch of money into Maggio's campaign at the moment Maggio was preparing to reduce a nursing home damage verdict against the very same man by a cool $4.2 million.

Multiple investigations continue. Maggio, the scourge of welfare deadbeats in his court, is drawing $140,000 from Arkansas taxpayers while suspended from judicial duties. A deadbeat, in other words. An honorable man would resign. But he's been on the teat too long for honest toil.

Judicial races smelled a good bit like an ill-kempt nursing home in more than one race. The same nursing home fat cat poured more than $100,000 into Supreme Court races. Nursing home money accounted for about half the money raised by Rhonda Wood, a Maggio pal from Conway, in her uncontested race for court.

Nursing homes really like Faulkner County. They accounted for $3 of every $4 collected by candidate Doralee Chandler; $20,000 of Judge David Clark's money, and $8,000 of candidate Troy Braswell's money. All these candidates — Maggio, Wood and the Faulkner bunch — also shared campaign tactics. Through the code words "conservative" and "values" and attendance at Republican Party events, candidates aimed to send a message that they are part of Arkansas's growing Republican majority (judges now run as nonpartisans). Vote for them and the implied message is you won't have to worry about a judge who might allow abortion to remain legal or allow a couple of women to marry.

There was some unseemly bickering and trickery in a batch of lawsuits aimed at disqualifying one candidate or the other for failing to pay bar dues in a timely fashion or, in one case, not having practiced law for an extended period before making a race for judge. The Supreme Court — all of them late on their own bar dues at one time or another in their careers — found a dodge around the delinquent payments. They made an even more fanciful dodge around the core question presented in the case of the candidate without active legal service for six years before filing for election. Justice Donald Corbin, departing for retirement at the end of this year, called it like he and a lot of observers saw it — "results oriented" jurisprudence.

When judges are popularly elected, outcomes are too easily influenced by dirty money, and judges as a result are too prone to tailor the law to desired results. See, for dirty money, the uncommonly dishonest campaign raised by an anonymously financed Virginia group that trashed Supreme Court candidate Tim Cullen, an Eagle Scout, as a fan of child pornography. They are also too easily spooked by legislative demagogues. See the Supreme Court's hurry-up stay of Chris Piazza's marriage equality ruling on the day the legislature was trying to stoke the fire for a drive to impeach Piazza — or any other judge — who displeases fire breathers like Sen. Jason Rapert.

If we keep electing judges we'll see more of this, not less. Particularly if the slimy tactics produced victories Tuesday.

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