- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Here are excerpts from recent editorials in Arkansas newspapers:

Log Cabin Democrat, Aug. 17, 2014

The appointment or election of judges

Some of the smartest people in the state are admitting, without shame, that there’s a good chance we’ll never know for sure if the thousands in nursing home money sent to Mike Maggio’s star-crossed court of appeals campaign had anything to do with the judge’s now-famous reduction of the jury award in the Martha Bull case.

But everybody, including Gilbert Baker, Mike Morton, Maggio himself and all us Whos down here in Whoville know exactly what it looked like when Maggio’s campaign got $10,000 from Mike Morton’s nursing home empire a few days before he reduced the jury’s $5,200,000 award for the agonizing death of Martha Bull in a Morton-owned nursing home to $1,000,000 - it looked like the political sausage was being made.

Viewed in isolation, Maggio’s decision to reduce the jury’s award to a “mere” $1,000,000 is defensible. Like every good toolbox, the law has its hammers. One of them is a judge’s authority to throttle back a jury’s award for negligent death. No judge ever got any applause for saying so in a campaign speech, but the life of an old woman in a nursing home is, in the cold calculus of the law, worth less than that of, say, a young mother with a promising career who’s leaving kids to grow up without her support and guidance. There are factors to consider, and what is and is not a reasonable award for wrongful death comes down to a crunching of hard numbers.

But Maggio’s decision reduce the jury award can’t be viewed in isolation thanks either to unlawful political back-scratching or the plain tough luck of Murphy’s law. Mike Morton and his nursing home money forever poisoned the waters of the Martha Bull case and it poisoned the roots of Maggio’s star-crossed Court of Appeals race - and all this before his “geauxjudge” antics brought the low-hanging fruits of Maggio’s hubris so near the ground that a blogger scooped them up.

The story of Mike Maggio and the nursing home money is a textbook-worthy lesson on how politics and money will forever poison the waters of law and justice.

Little Rock Attorney Jack Wagoner’s recent motion to recuse any state Supreme Court justice running for re-election from ruling on Wright v. State, Arkansas’ same-sex marriage case, exposes the root problem of politics co-mingling with law through judicial elections.

Wagoner’s motion is unusually short, as submission to the Supreme Court legislation go, but in its four pages it ties the four corners of the issue into a Gordian knot:

1. “Judges shall not permit others to convey the impression that any other person or organization is in a position to influence the judge.” Ark. Code Jud. Conduct 2.4.

2. The state Legislature, led by Sen. Jason Rapert, has passed a resolution (that does nothing but attempt to threaten and intimidate) declaring Judge Piazza’s ruling that same-sex couples may marry “an abuse of his judicial authority” and promising to “explore legislative remedies to prevent the Arkansas Constitution and the will of the people . from being negated by judicial activism.” Everybody knows the “legislative remedy” being explored is impeachment.

3. Judges are publicly elected in Arkansas, and the ones that want to survive become political animals during their rutting season, which comes every sixth or eighth spring.

4. The clear message from a faction within the legislature is, “Uphold Piazza’s ruling and we’ll do everything we can do knock you off your bench,” and so this conveys the impression that the legislature “is in a position to influence the judge.”

That dog just don’t hunt. Just as money poisoned the waters for Maggio, what’s fast becoming shorthand as “Little Rock-styled politics” threatens to poison the waters for the state Supreme Court and every other courtroom in the state. The idea that judges, by law, don’t know where their campaign money comes from is one of the last of the great political knee-slappers, and no judge has ever said it with a straight face anywhere except on the floor of an Ethics Commission hearing. It’s equally laughable that judges don’t know “who their friends are” come re-election time, and you can bet they know who’s making threats on the floor of the legislature.

“The actions of the Legislative Council and its members are unfortunate, as they create an appearance that outside influences could have an impact on those sitting justices who expect to seek election to the Court in the future,” Wagoner wrote in his motion, also pointing out that it doesn’t really matter if there is any actual influence; the operative language in the law is “an appearance of impropriety,” not actual impropriety.

In recent comments on Wagoner’s motion to recuse Supreme Court justices who would be deciding the politically-charged issue of same-sex marriage in their re-election year rut, state Attorney General Dustin McDaniel - who isn’t running for re-election - said that “political fundraising, political consultants, outside campaign money are all things that should have no place in the courtroom,” and that “all parties should believe that justice is the only thing in the mind of a jurist.”

Of course McDaniel is no stranger to politics, and he knows that a system of appointing judges will always run the risk of transferring those politics “to the governor’s office, or to whatever commission winds up appointing judges.”

That’s true as well. It’s always going to be political, and with public elections at least most of what’s happening happens out in the open. This is one of a few good arguments for our system of electing judges. Another is that a judge who has to hit the campaign trail and argue for their continued existence on the bench tends to remember that they work for the people.

Yes, there is value in judicial elections, but what wisdom can there be in gumming up the already tiny wheels of justice with big-money PACs, big-bore campaign consultancy firms, and asking our judges to stow their robes away every few years and contort themselves into the fantastical shapes of modern American political candidates?

Maybe judicial appointments would, as McDaniel and any other right-thinking Arkansan should fear, just shift the political sausage-making from the campaign trail to the proverbial smoky back room. But maybe not. It’s debatable, and should be debated. What isn’t debatable is that Arkansas has a duty to its citizens to store the poisoned waters of politics and money well away from our courtrooms.


Texarkana Gazette, Aug. 16, 2014

Too much?

The death of comedian Robin Williams has many people upset.

And that’s not the only thing.

A substantial number of his fans are also angry over the way the authorities and the media covered the case.

They don’t like that Marin County Sheriff’s Office released details of Williams’ suicide, including the method and a description of how his body was found.

Nor are they thrilled that the media chose to publish those details. Nor do they like the speculations about why the entertainer chose to end his life.

They see such things as insensitive, sensationalistic.


But the sheriff’s department had no choice. California law makes such intrusions public information. This type of information is released daily about those who take their own lives.

Of course, most people don’t care. Unless the victim is a beloved celebrity.

The same can be said of the media. Most suicide cases are ignored unless the act occurs in a public place. Then it might rate a few lines in the local paper, maybe a mention on the TV news.

But if a celebrity commits suicide_or dies from a drug overdose or something similar_it becomes news. And it gets reported.

Perhaps too much.

There are ways to handle such situations, and it’s true that some news sources don’t do a very good job of it.

But most try to balance respect and reporting.

There is another factor to consider as well.

And that’s the public. The very people who turn up a nose at what they see as unseemly journalism.

Sometimes they are right. Sometimes they protest too much.

Because somebody’s watching the TV coverage, somebody’s buying the newspapers and magazines.

Somebody’s rehashing the details at the office water cooler or over drinks in a bar. And somebody’s posting on Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites. Not always nice posts, either.

In the media, we have to walk a delicate line in such cases. Don’t tell enough and we are accused of “covering it up.” Tell too much and we are accused of sensationalizing.

We don’t always get it right, but most of us try.

One good thing that has come out of the media scrutiny is a renewed focus on the devastating effects of depression. Perhaps that can help someone else struggling with the disease. If so, that’s a good thing.


Southwest Times Record, Aug. 17, 2014

What does library vote say about Fort Smith?

The fact that the Fort Smith Public Library failed to gain a millage increase is a cause for sadness among those who saw the library’s plan as a route to a better community. The meanness, the anger and complete misinformation behind its loss should be the cause for soul searching in the city.

Certainly, we hold elections like this one so the public can voice its decision about issues. One can be disappointed in the outcome of any election but go forward in peace, knowing that on any issue, people of good conscience may disagree. That fewer than 10 percent of registered voters got to the polls is galling but predictable.

It was predictable that some people would consider a 2-mill increase too much, no matter how it would be spent.

Also predictable is the notion that any new tax proposal will be greeted with a reflexive “NO.” The advantage of a reflexive answer is all the troublesome thinking it eliminates.

But what are we to make of a campaign of wrong information?

Details of the plan were in the newspaper. They were on TV. They were on the Internet at a dedicated website and on social media. Town hall meetings were held at multiple locations. Presentations were made to all or most of the city’s civic and social organizations. Library workers, who answer questions for a living, were available to provide information to anyone who wanted it. How many people, how many items, how much money, how high the moon. One had only to ask a question to learn the answer.

Yet people said the library wanted money to build a drive-thru window at Dewey’s. Not true; perhaps someone confused the library with Panera. People said the library wanted to build a new auditorium. Not true; perhaps someone confused the library with the public school system. People said the library claimed it hadn’t had a funding increase in 57 years. Not true; library officials said the millage hadn’t been increased in 57 years - and if you don’t think the cost of providing library services hasn’t outpaced the growth of real estate in Fort Smith, you haven’t bought a book or stepped in a library lately.

We were surprised by the number of people who lashed out at the library for wanting more taxes for trivial things at a time when Fort Smith is hurting for jobs. Many of the services the library planned to add would have addressed that exact issue, including a free resume-writing service, free small-business assistance, a free legal document service and free tutoring for adults who have gone back to school to enhance their job prospects.

That says nothing about the unparalleled value a first-class library can be to the elusive “quality of place” a city must demonstrate to attract high-paying jobs for a professional workforce.

(Just a side note, we wondered why the people who complained the loudest that we need jobs also complained that the library wanted to bring salaries up to industry standards and add new staff. Apparently, those aren’t the jobs we’re looking for.)

Fort Smith is a city of inexplicable contradictions. We worry that we are being left behind. We wonder why the cities of northwest Arkansas seem to improve in ways we do not. We complain that the same people make all our decisions and take part in all our events. But far too frequently, when we are asked to help or to pay some money up front to improve our lot and situate ourselves for the next great thing, we pull our heads and feet into our shells and say, “no, no, no.”

A friend, at the time a Fort Smith native, resident and booster, observed a few years ago that the city seems to have an inferiority complex and a self-destructive streak. When, apparently moved by this habit, voters refused to fund improvements to the city’s Convention Center with a hospitality tax in 2011, our friend chose not to watch the collapse of the city he loved and moved his family east for better opportunities.

Fort Smith is a great place with a super story. It has a mild climate, most of the time, and is surrounded by amazing beauty and endless recreational opportunities. It’s recovering from a blow to its manufacturing economy, but unemployment here has dropped from 8.1 percent in May 2013 to 6.4 percent in June 2014, according to statistics from the Federal Reserve Bank in St. Louis.

The local university, the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, is first-rate and plugged in to every aspect of the community and local employers. Our Air National Guard unit has a new three-pronged mission that positions it to play a vital role in our country’s defense. At Chaffee Crossing, we have what few growing communities have: new land for development. Our water supply at Lake Fort Smith and the city sanitary landfill promise to meet our needs far into the future. And our library has been over-delivering on the pretty high promises it made in the 1990s for a long time.

This election is over, but there will be other proposals from other parts of our community in the coming years. At some point, we will need to pay the bill if we want to grow. If we don’t, we should stop blaming city leaders for the unmet need for more and better jobs and start blaming ourselves.

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