If applied as it was in Pulaski County, the ruling that disqualified judicial candidate Valerie Bailey in Pulaski’s Circuit Court would rock the state and Faulkner County’s judicial landscape.
Following the reports of the ruling that saved incumbent Judge Tim Fox’s seat against Bailey, it was revealed the simple error on the part of a judicial candidate — the failure to timely pay yearly dues to keep a law license — could cost him or her an election.
Last week the Log Cabin Democrat reported Circuit judge candidate Angela Byrd’s license to practice law was suspended for one day last month, which could impact her candidacy according to Amendment 80 of the state constitution.
The amendment states circuit judges shall have been licensed attorneys for at least six years immediately preceding the date of assuming office.
For district judges the time is four years, and for justices of the Supreme Court and judges of the Court of Appeals, the time is eight years.
But Byrd is not the only local candidate or judge whose license has been suspended for a time for paying attorney dues late.
Her opponent, sitting Circuit Judge David Clark, 4th Division, had his license suspended briefly 10 years ago. Clark was appointed by Governor Mike Beebe in 2007, just three years into the six the amendment requires for candidacy.
Contacted Tuesday, Clark said he was unaware of the suspension, but said it must have occurred when he was with the prosecutor’s office.
He said it could have been an office error, but said it was his responsibility to make sure the dues were paid.
If the ruling is repeated, information obtained from the Arkansas Supreme Court clerk shows Court of Appeals Judge Rhonda Wood’s candidacy for Supreme Court could be invalid. In 2008, Wood’s license to practice law was suspended for a little over a week.
Further, Circuit Judge Amy Brazil, who is vying for 1st Division Circuit Court judgeship, shows suspensions in 2001, 2003 and 2007.
Second Division Circuit Judge Mike Maggio has suspensions in 2003, 2006, 2007 and 2008. The longest suspension was in 2006 from March 2 to June 6, according to the Supreme Court clerk’s office.
Sitting Division Circuit Judge H.G. Foster was more than two months late paying dues last year, which resulted in a suspension.
He is seeking re-election against attorney Doralee Chandler.
Brief suspensions aren’t typically catastrophic for attorneys, but it’s possible that lawsuits will be filed in attempts to remove Wood, who is "walking on" to the Supreme Court uncontested, and to remove Byrd and Foster for local 20th Judicial District judgeships, from the May ballot.
If lawsuits are filed, much will depend on which judge hears the case.
It’s possible that another special judge would be appointed as in the Pulaski County case, which was presided over by specially appointed and retired Judge John Cole, but a special judge would not be as necessary in these cases because the candidates in question are not running for judgeship in Pulaski County court.
Any lawsuit to remove a candidate from the ballot is properly held in Pulaski County, because it is essentially a suit against the Secretary of State to de-certify the ballot, and officers of the state can be sued in Pulaski County.
However a challenge of any local candidate on the basis of their late payment of dues turns out, it can be expected to be appealed.
Because of the need to decide the matter before the election, it’s possible the State Supreme Court could be asked to render a binding, final decision on whether an administrative suspension for late payment of dues is a "suspension" that would disqualify a candidate for office.
Attorneys who spoke with the Log Cabin Democrat on the condition of anonymity gave perspective to the yearly law license requirement and the frequency at which the dues are overlooked.
One attorney said being late happens fairly often, and until this election year, it has not been "a big deal."
"It happens quite a lot and it’s not that big of a deal in my book, but of course others may differ these days," one Faulkner County attorney said.
Others aren’t as forgiving.
"I know it happens, but most of us are good about getting it paid on time," another attorney said. "All I can tell you is that I make sure mine are paid, and I’ve never been late. I mean, it’s not like it’s a surprise. It happens every year, and if you don’t pay [in January] you get a nice letter from the Supreme Court reminding you. Also, you’re getting out the shoebox and getting your taxes together and your dues are a business expense, so it’s always on my list of things to do for sure — and I don’t trust anybody else to mail that check but me."
Another attorney added that the law community is finding out now what it means as far as eligibility for judicial office, but in practicing law, having a license suspended for non-payment hasn’t been a general issue.
Foster, for an earlier story, provided documentation that he did not have any disciplinary actions on his record, but said he did have a brief suspension.
An attempt to contact Wood Tuesday was unsuccessful, and her office staff said she was ill at home.
Blue Hog Report, a blogging website, posted information that Wood had a suspension in 2008 on Tuesday. The post also said Fox was late on dues.