It feels like I've been everywhere this campaign season, campaigning against Issue 1, the tort "reform" proposal that will be on your ballot this coming November. But it has been a great time, and highly successful. I've met tons of great Arkansans who do not want a government mandated price on life enshrined in our state constitution. I have tons of events coming up in the next few weeks, and I will be putting out that information on an almost daily basis. So watch this space! Until that time, here are a few recent shots from the campaign trail. VOTE NO ON ISSUE 1!
Jesse Gibson will participate in an Issue 1 debate this July 19th at 11:30, sponsored by the Political Animals Club. The debate will be held at Next Level Events in Little Rock, Arkansas, at 1400 West Markham Street in Little Rock, Arkansas. You can get your tickets through the Political Animals Club by clicking on the link below. See you there! It should be a great debate, with great information why you should vote AGAINST Issue 1 this fall.
Issue 1 was the hot topic of debate at the Arkansas Bar Convention in Hot Springs a few weeks ago. A legislative panel addressed the topic at length, and many of the sponsors of the proposed constitutional amendment were grilled and their motivations questioned. Click the link to read the article from the Hot Springs Sentinel Record. Judge for yourself whether elected officials in Arkansas side with their constituents or the monied special interests and lobbyists that swarm the Capitol during the session.
I was recently named President-Elect of the Arkansas Trial Lawyers Association (ATLA) for the 2017-2018 fiscal year. I am scheduled to serve as the organization's President in 2018-2019. During my time as President in 2018, SJR8, the legislatively referred question from the most recent legislative session, commonly called tort "reform" will be on the ballot. SJR8 seeks to place an arbitrary value on human life, regardless of circumstance or the egregious actions of the wrongdoer, of $500,000.00. It also seeks to wrestle rule-making authority from the courts and place it in the hands of the legislature, where all judicial rules will be subject to massive influxes of lobbying dollars from special interests seeking to stack the deck and rig the game in their favor to ultimately pad their bottom lines. This effort is but the first in a series of many that will ultimately seize freedoms from the people and place them in the hands of special interests. Your freedoms will be on your ballot in 2018. I hope you protect them by voting NO.
I look forward to serving as President-Elect and ultimately as President of ATLA. I look forward to traveling the state and having conversations about the power grab under way by special interests via SJR8. I am committed to fighting for and protecting Arkansans. I anticipate coming to your town soon! In the meantime, I urge you to educate yourself about SJR8 and vote NO in November, 2018!
It was reported today by the Arkansas Times that former circuit judge Mike Maggio received the maximum 10 year sentence from federal judge Brian Miller. The case involved accepting a bribe to reduce a nursing home verdict in Faulkner County from $5.2 million to $1.0 million. In imposing the maximum sentence that was in line with the sentencing report, Judge Miller remarked that a dirty judge was more dangerous than a dope dealer, because a dirty judge made the entire public lose faith in the entire judicial system.
Judge Maggio had sought to withdraw his guilty plea in recent days. After that went nowhere, he begged for leniency and mercy due to a myriad of unconvincing reasons. It is unknown where he will serve his time. He can apparently receive some sentence reductions if he begins complying with his plea agreement and cooperates with federal investigators about the actions of his co-conspirators.
As an editorial aside, I expect Mr. Maggio to begin cooperating post haste. If he was concerned about serving serious jail time, that possibility just got very, very real. I imagine there are some very concerned parties in Conway and Forth Smith tonight. Gilbert Baker and Michael Morton cannot have much faith that Mr. Maggio will willingly serve out his time when he could minimize it by implicating them with everything he has. This case has long bothered me, as it only serves to confirm what many believe, right or wrong, happens all the time. The damage to the justice system in the public's eye is immeasurable. Updates as they happen.
With the "non-partisan" judicial elections now in our rearview mirror, I believe it's safe to say that it's time for change in how we go about electing judges in Arkansas. The two recent Supreme Court races saw over $1.6 MILLION in "dark money" flooding our airwaves, telling the citizens that they must elect Judge Dan Kemp and Judge Shawn Womack. (This number will surely rise as late arriving financial information is crunched) Congratulations to both of these men, and I hope they stand by their campaign messages, and emember that they are there for the citizens who elected them and not for shady corporate entities who slaughtered their opponents campaigns and reputations to get them there. Please understand that reasonable people are skeptical of this. When that much money is spent trashing a candidate for our state's highest court, what other message could be received other than to behave and rule as we want . . . or else.
But it's time to realize that with Citizens United, the toothpaste is out of the tube. The cows are out of the barn. Insert whatever cliche you want. Dark money will flow in from out of state (but lets not kid ourselves, a lot of it actually begins IN state, gets "laundered" by going to dark money outfits out of state, and then comes back) like sludge in every future judicial election. The attacks were so successful, that the groups behind them should feel nothing but emboldened about their ability to buy influence and judicial races here in Arkansas.
It's time to move to a process, with strict oversight and a fair methodology, to appoint the best and brightest to the bench in Arkansas. Even Governor Asa Hutchinson agrees. He called for a move to merit judicial selection in his own campaign post-mortem. Now, the devil is certainly in the details. If we truly want to eliminate millions of fraudulent campaign ads and the sale of our courts to big business, true independence, bi-partisan oversight, and input from both the plaintiff's and defense bar is key. But it's time to stop kidding ourselves that we can have any kind of fair election when the independent judicial election watchdog group, Justice at Stake, found the most recent judicial elections in Arkansas to contain the most vile ads and infested with record levels of outside, "dark" money. It's time to do something different. If corporate interests are dead set at influencing the game with their millions, with the intent of limiting your constitutionally protected 7th Amendment rights, it's time to change the game.
Stay tuned as I put forth my proposed merit selection plan in a few days.
The Citizens United decision opened the proverbial floodgates for "dark money" to flood elections across our country. These dark money groups do not play by the same rules as campaigns. They do not have to disclose their donors or sources of money. Campaigns have to adhere to strict rules regarding fundraising and disclosures of donors.
The latest dark money group to invade Arkansas is the Judicial Crisis Network, a shadowy out of state group believed to be funded by the nursing home industry and anti-consumer groups affiliated with the chambers of commerce. These entities seek to do nothing but add to corporations' bottom lines, often at the expense of you and your loved ones. This group has recently dumped half a million dollars onto Arkansas airwaves in an attempt to take down Courtney Goodson and Clark Mason. Why? To promote good government or "good judgin'?" No. Because they want to move in, buy our court and restrict your 7th Amendment right to trial by jury.
Make no mistake, the movement is afoot to buy our court out from under us. These groups behind the Judicial Crisis Network do not care about fairness. They care about money. And they want to ensure they keep raking it in hand over fist. And who have they vilified? Trial lawyers? The people who help you hold a drunk driver responsible or who helps a family in need in a domestic case. The Arkansas Trial Lawyers Association has strongly condemned these groups. Early voting starts today. As you go to the polls, tell these dark money groups that our courts are not for sale in Arkansas. You could be the next person who is in need of the justice they were designed to provide.
I was saddened to learn today of the passing of Justice Jim Hannah. Justice Hannah was widely revered in the legal community for his kind temperament and great fondness and respect for the judiciary and legal system. He was an honorable man who I had the privilege of appearing before a few times. The Arkansas bar has lost a man who cared deeply about justice and fairness in the eyes of the law. He will be greatly missed. I would like to extend my sincere condolences to his family.
Readers of my blog know that I have intently followed the case originating in Faulkner County Circuit Court involving the sordid tale of defrocked Judge Mike Maggio, Michael Morton, and Gilbert Baker. The story, admitted to by Maggio in his plea agreement, is that he illegally reduced a $5.2 million nursing home verdict obtained by Tom Buchanan on behalf of the Estate of Martha Bull to $1 million in return for exorbitant cash contributions to his then burgeoning campaign for the Court of Appeals. Once this corrupt scheme came to light, Maggio's campaign was kaput, he lost his law license, and he is looking at deserved jail time.
Though unnamed, there were several co-conspirators mentioned in Maggio's plea agreement. These were largely believed to be Michael Morton, the Fort Smith based nursing home mogul, and Gilbert Baker, the former politico and lobbyist with a shady history where money and politics intersect. It has been nearly 10 months since Maggio's guilty plea, and since then, those in the legal community have been waiting for the other shoe to drop. Since the investigation is being led by the FBI, it has long been believed that Maggio was cooperating with authorities and providing information and perhaps testimony against other parties involved in this truly shameful debacle.
Additional fuel was thrown onto that fire this week when Maggio's sentencing, which had already been pushed back until November 20, 2015, was again pushed back until February 26, 2016. Is this perhaps evidence that the investigation may be spreading out to other lawmakers or additional co-conspirators? What about other judges? What about confidants of both Morton and/or Baker? Best to wait and see, but it may very well be that the scope of the investigation has spread and will continue its slow sprawl, perhaps very high in state government. I would venture to say many pols here in Arkansas are sweating and keeping a very, very low profile right now.
"All the rights secured to the citizens under the Constitution are worth nothing, and a mere bubble, except guaranteed to them by an independent and virtuous judiciary." --Andrew Jackson
Former President Andrew Jackson's comments about an "independent and virtuous judiciary" were not flowery prose about an unassailable judiciary. Instead, they were made in a letter to a nephew in 1822, criticizing an attempt to repeal part of the Judiciary Act of 1789, which established federal supremacy over state law. Jackson sometimes blew with the wind regarding whether he agreed with the federal judiciary or not, but the point remains valid today. Constitutional rights, including due process of law or right to a jury trial, are mere words on a page unless a truly independent judiciary follows their sworn duty to enforce and uphold them. This is true both on the federal and state levels, including here in Arkansas.
Perhaps it is the prevalence of legal dramas in movies and on TV. Maybe it is one too many John Grisham novels. But in the past few years, I have been forced to respond to fears from clients that "the judge has been paid off," or that a case is "too politically charged for justice to be served." I often laughed this fear off and spoke in a reassuring manner to clients that such things don't actually happen in real life. Judges aren't bribed. Politics don't enter into judicial decisions. You have nothing to worry about. I know this isn't what you do for a living, Mr. or Mrs. Client, so let me assure you I have never seen or heard of that happening.
But now, I am not so sure. With the developing story in Faulkner County about the Estate of Martha Bull nursing home case that has now mushroomed into a full blown John Grisham novel, maybe I was the naive one. In that case, former Judge Mike Maggio has already pleaded guilty to accepting a bribe to reduce a $5.2 million plaintiff's verdict to $1 million from nursing home mogul Michael Morton, via an intermediary, Gilbert Baker. Maggio has since been removed from the bench and is looking at jail time. His legal career is over. What will ultimately become of Morton and Baker is unknown. This case shocks me to the core that such a thing could ever possibly happen. But it did. One of the parties involved admitted it did. Clients read the newspaper. They read blogs. They know this happened. How can they be assured it won't happen to them? I have no answers.
The Arkansas Supreme Court is in turmoil right now over the gay marriage case. Circuit Judge Chris Piazza struck down the gay marriage ban as unconstitutional, and the case was briefed on an "expedited" basis and argued before Thanksgiving last year. However, what happened right around the same time? An election. A landslide election. And elections often have consequences. A judge recused after being contacted about the case by a state senator, causing the need for the appointment of a special judge to hear the case. In the interim, the Supreme Court has had turnover and the Arkansas Attorney General has petitioned the court for the new batch of justices who won their elections hear the case all over again. The common thinking is that the justices who were elected would be more receptive to the state's case to uphold the ban than the ones who heard it last November. Four members of the Court have gone so far to create a "new case" to decide which judges will actually decide Judge Piazza's underlying decision or the "old case." All of this is against the backdrop that the United States Supreme Court will likely issue a ruling at some point this summer, possibly rendering any state decision moot. Two justices, Justice Hannah and Justice Danielson, felt so strongly that the majority on the court was attempting to put off reaching a decision in the underlying case so the United States Supreme Court could rule on the issue that they recused and stated they would not be a party to such machinations. Such action would then allow the court to avoid a difficult and potentially politically problematic ruling. Yesterday, the Governor Asa Hutchinson appointed three special justices with widely known political beliefs that seem to be sympathetic to the faction on the court who either want to delay a ruling or to uphold the gay marriage ban. Critics of the above-referenced action feel strongly that "the fix is in." The Governor, Attorney General, multiple new members of the Supreme Court, and all of the newly appointed justices have commonly known political ties. What is the public supposed to think?
Maybe it took being slapped in the face with things like this for me to finally get what clients of mine had stated to me over the years. I felt that they often were paranoid or watched too much TV. But maybe things like this have always happened in Arkansas, and I was just too blind to see it. I hope that is not the case. But with each example like those listed here, it becomes harder and harder for me to laugh off and explain away clients' concerns about whether justice is available to them. If you ask the plaintiff in the Bull case or the litigants in the gay marriage challenge, I would venture to say that they do not feel like the courthouse doors are open to them. I would also feel comfortable saying they feel like they are playing into a stacked deck. They may be right. It is my sincere desire that both of these matters are fully investigated and all truth comes to light.
There is at least talk in different circles about moving towards appointment of judges instead of the election process that we now use. Would the instances that I describe above fill anyone with confidence that their rights of due process and to a jury trial would be protected? Or could the process be subverted by politically powerful or monied interests to reach conclusions and results they desire? I truly do not know. But my eyes are much more open than they ever were. Yours should be too.