The May 20 primaries will include six non-appellate judicial races in Little Rock, contests that rarely see heated campaigning. But this year's race for Ninth Division Circuit judge, which pits a lawyer against a sitting judge, is different, with the challenger charging that the incumbent is discourteous and uncooperative.
Cecily Skarda, an attorney who handles mainly domestic cases in private practice, is challenging Mary McGowan, Ninth Division judge since 1990.
The Ninth Division is the designated drug court for defendants eligible for non-prison sentences. It also handles civil, domestic, and probate cases. Pay is $128,633 per year for a six-year term.
The court has jurisdiction over the entirety of Pulaski and Perry counties, which means that all voters in both counties will be able to vote in the race.
Skarda, 41, who has argued cases in McGowan's court, has voiced strong displeasure with the way the court is run. In an interview, she charged that McGowan does not follow Judicial Canon 3, which stipulates that “a judge shall be patient, dignified and courteous to litigants, jurors, witnesses, lawyers and others with whom the judge deals in an official capacity.” “There is absolute disregard for that canon in the Ninth Division,” Skarda said.
McGowan, 60, denied that she has acted improperly. She pointed out that Skarda has been before her court only a few times (McGowan puts the number at four; Skarda said three to five). She added that Skarda stated on the record that she didn't know what she was doing the one time she came before the drug court. Skarda said that is untrue.
Defendants appear in drug court after agreeing to enter a guilty plea. The judge assigns the most serious cases to residential treatment; others are handed over to the Department of Community Corrections (DCC), which assigns a probation officer and treatment.
Skarda charged that McGowan does not cooperate with probation officers and medical experts as required by state law governing drug courts. She said McGowan has particularly disregarded the law's requirement for “a coordinated strategy among the judge, prosecution, defense, and treatment providers to govern offender compliance.”
McGowan disputed the claim. She said she has to cooperate with all parties in order to maintain a caseload that averages over 200 cases per month.
She added that the success of her drug court, which she began running in 1996, made possible the expansion of drug court programs across the state in the early years of this decade.
If a probationer fails to complete the terms of his sentence, he may receive jail time. The DCC maintains statistics about recidivism rates. Skarda said McGowan routinely understates the recidivism rate of those sentenced in her court. She also said not all Ninth Division recidivists are properly documented.
McGowan pointed out that, as it's the DCC's job to maintain statistics about cases she sentences, problems with recidivism reporting do not stem from her court.
Skarda further complained that McGowan has taken an unacceptably long period of time to act on some non-drug cases in her court.
Judges are required to report to the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) cases they have left undecided — called “cases under advisement” — for a period of three months. AOC records show that Judge McGowan has not reported a case under advisement for the past 10 years. However, Pulaski County court records show that, over that 10-year span, Judge McGowan has left at least one case under advisement for a period of longer than three months.
Pulaski County Clerk Pat O'Brien, whose office oversees all circuit court filings and whose employees must deal regularly with the judges, has endorsed Skarda.
She's also received the endorsement of the Central Arkansas Labor Council and the North Little Rock Fraternal Order of Police.
“The general consensus was that [Skarda] will be a fresh face and bring a new attitude,” Labor Council President Lindsay Brown said. “Some folks felt they were talked down to [in McGowan's court].”
Brown said McGowan called him upset about the endorsement. “She said something like, ‘People in labor need to have a friend on the bench, and now you won't have much of a friend,' ” Brown commented. He equated the remark to “a drunk in a bar” running his mouth — not as a threat to Arkansas labor.
McGowan declined to comment on a private conversation. She said she was disappointed not to have the endorsement, but that “I would never allow [the Labor Council's] decision to influence my interpretation of the law, nor my impartiality as circuit judge.”
McGowan has been endorsed by the Little Rock Fraternal Order of Police (LRFOP). “Based on her experience, we felt she would be the best candidate for the job,” said FOP President Mark Knowles.
McGowan said she would be reluctant to engage Skarda's claims on the campaign trail. “She's running a race that will attack me,” McGowan said. “Basically, I don't like to run races like that.”
However, McGowan did make a point of noting that Skarda is being sued by a telephone company over an unpaid bill. Court filings show that Skarda is disputing the lawsuit's claims, saying she had credit with the company.