Columns » Max Brantley

Supremely discredited

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Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Rhonda Wood and her allies continue to discredit the state's highest court.

I've written before of new Justice Wood's alliance with Justices Courtney Goodson, Karen Baker and Jo Hart in taking control of hiring, firing and other administrative matters once considered the province of the chief justice, currently Jim Hannah.

Recently, they overrode Hannah and Justice Paul Danielson to engineer double-digit raises for their favored employees while other state employees got a 1 percent pay raise. The money came in part from the firing of Stephanie Harris as court communications counsel. The plan also counts on future beneficence from the Arkansas legislature.

Wood also recently sought out an interview with Democrat-Gazette columnist John Brummett. Upset by leaks of internal court matters to the Arkansas Times, she decided the proper response was to LEAK INTERNAL COURT INFORMATION.

She offered up, first, a straw man. She'd compiled records to show the Four Horsewomen of the Judicial Apocalypse did not vote in lockstep on the law. I'm not aware anyone has alleged that. I do allege that they've formed an alliance on administrative matters. And they DID join in common purpose on one very significant legal case — the undecided, "expedited" appeal of the lawsuit challenging the ban on same-sex marriage.

Wood told Brummett and later the Associated Press that the second half of the same-sex marriage case included a decision by the court only on the issue of whether the Arkansas Constitution's declaration of equal rights had been overridden by the 2004 voter initiative to ban same-sex marriage. She termed this an administrative matter. It is anything but. And though Wood claims she kept confidence by not revealing how the court voted on that question, she effectively buttressed the record.

Here's how it went down. Last November, the court conferenced on the completed marriage case and voted 6-1 to uphold Judge Chris Piazza on U.S. Constitutional grounds. Justice Courtney Goodson wrote the opinion that was circulated. It was to be joined by Justices Hannah, Danielson, Donald Corbin, Karen Baker and Special Justice Robert McCorkindale. Justice Jo Hart dissented. Baker would not have joined the opinion had it included upholding Piazza on the state as well as federal constitution and Goodson professed to want to wait for a Hart dissent before perfecting her majority opinion on that point. Hart's foot-dragging prevented a decision before the end of the year, when Corbin retired and was replaced by Robin Wynne and Wood joined the court in the seat in which McCorkindale had been appointed special justice. Wood badly wanted to get in on the decision. She's a hyper-partisan Republican and she got her way, with help from Republican Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, a former law clerk of Hart's, and Republican special justices appointed by Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson. This scheme to make a second case of who should vote was decried by Justices Hannah and Danielson in recusals as a delaying tactic.

The delays continued long after jurisdiction was settled. But an opinion finally was reached. Again with Goodson writing the circulated opinion, a majority including Baker, Hart and Wood said the state Constitution's declaration of rights section didn't stand in the way of legalized discrimination against gay people. The opinion wasn't released. That the opinion was only on the state point and unreleased tells you all you need to know about what it said. It was written for an eventuality that didn't happen: the U.S. Supreme Court overturning multiple lower court rulings in favor of same-sex marriage. Had that happened, the Arkansas court would have completed the job on legal discrimination against gays at the state level. The Arkansas Supreme Court majority otherwise planned to go in the tank should the U.S. Supreme Court rule for equality. That's what happened. The Arkansas court dismissed the Piazza appeal as moot, leaving them with no fingerprints on legal same-sex marriage in Arkansas.

The court's hyper political nature is the real concern — that they'll kowtow to the Republican legislature. A Republican senator with ties to Justice Baker, Bart Hester, already has made moves to meddle in court finance and administrative leadership. Wood has campaigned throughout her career with Republican insiders. Her race for Supreme Court was propelled by a bag of cash stuffed by former Republican senator and legislative fixer Gilbert Baker with $46,000 from nursing home magnate Michael Morton. The Baker-Morton-Wood alliance was part of the same work Baker did between Morton and Wood's old friend and campaign event driver, Mike Maggio. Maggio is soon to go to prison for bribery.

You might guess that Rhonda Wood, who professes to like to discuss "process" and "transparency" with at least one columnist, isn't likely to be on my phone anytime soon.

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