The state Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission (JDDC) concluded Wednesday that no evidence of misconduct occurred in a controversial Arkansas Supreme Court case involving same-sex marriage.
In April of this year, two complaints were filed alleging that Supreme Court Justices Karen Baker, Courtney Goodson, Jo Hart and Robin Wynne delayed their ruling on a state case involving same-sex marriage while the issue was being settled at the federal level.
The controversy involved justices recusing from the case, Smith v. Wright, as well as new members being seated as new judges elected in November 2014 took office in January 2015. In short, as many as eight justices contended they were eligible to review the appellate case, which would have upheld or overturned a lower court ruling by Pulaski County Circuit Judge Chris Piazza, who determined last year that the state’s ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional.
“Numerous procedural reasons existed for the extended time this case remained under consideration,” wrote David Sachar, director of the JDDC. “The lack of information to the public, the absence of written internal rules of the Court and the nature of this case contributed to suspicion about the reason for the Court not rendering a decision. Nevertheless, suspicion does not equal proof and this investigation concluded with no proof of wrongdoing on the part of the Justices named in the complaint.”
Sachar added that a three-member review panel spent months outlining a timeline of events, interviewing justices and Supreme Court staff, and copious documents tied to the proceedings.
“The investigation initiated by these complaints did not reveal evidence of judicial misconduct, wrong doing or incapacity within the Commission’s jurisdiction,” Sachar said. “[Y]ou are hereby notified that the allegations leading to the investigation have proven to be groundless.”
Justice Karen Baker, who was one of the targets of the complaint, issued a statement to Talk Business & Politics:
“I was pleased to be notified today by the Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission that after a diligent and extensive investigation of the complaints that were filed based on the accusations contained in the recusal letters of former Chief Justice Jim Hannah and Justice Paul Danielson in the same sex marriage case, the Commission has determined that the allegations leading to the investigation have proven to be groundless.”
Much of the debate over the Supreme Court’s handling of the Smith v. Wright case centered on which justices could hear the lawsuit – either a specially appointed justice from last year’s high court or newly elected members to the state Supreme Court.
With the case still unsettled after two new members joined the state’s high court, it was unclear if the appointed justice, Robert McCorkindale, or two new members, Justices Rhonda Wood and Robin Wynne, were eligible to rule on the case.
The 2015 Supreme Court eventually debated who could hear the case, which led to Wood, former Chief Justice Jim Hannah, and Justice Paul Danielson recusing from the case. Newly-elected Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) made three special appointments to the court to weigh in on that decision. Also, newly-elected Attorney General Leslie Rutledge called for a rehearing of oral arguments, which led to additional confusion as to the direction the court might take.
The complaints in the case over stalling argued that a ruling was “unduly delayed” and it may have been “because of bias or fear of public criticism,” but today’s release from the judicial discipline group dismissed the allegations stating:
• No testimonial or documentary evidence was found that the delay in ruling on Smith v. Wright, CY-14-427. was due to bias, prejudice or fear of public clamor.
• There was a delay in deciding the case that was caused by several factors (listed in a paragraph below). None of these factors constituted judicial misconduct.
• The Court has traditionally followed unwritten “customs and practices”. These “customs and practices” were responsible in part for the timing of rendering a final decision on the merits of the case. These “customs and practices” are not available to the public in written form or even anecdotally in case law.