The Arkansas Supreme Court took an extraordinary step today. Because recusal requests have disrupted the orderly administration of justice in Circuit Judge Mike Maggio’s court, the court oday issued an order to assign special judges to handle all pending cases and any filed while the order is in effect. The order is to be in force “until further notice.”
Maggio, who sits in Conway and covers the 20th Judicial District, is under investigation by the Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission both for derogatory comments made on an LSU website under a pseudonym and over the suspicious circumstances of campaign contributions made to Maggio’s campaign by a Fort Smith nursing home while he was in the process of reducing a verdict against a related nursing home from $5.2 to $1 million.
An ethics complaint has also been filed against Maggio. And attorneys have begun asking Maggio not to hear divorce cases or asked for continuances in pending cases in his court until his situation resolves itself. At least one lawyer has asked for a new judge for a divorce case because of derogatory remarks Maggio made about women and whether they deserved to be awarded alimony.
Maggio dropped out of a race for Arkansas Court of Appeals after the controversies began erupting. His nursing home ruling had been reported here along with heavy money from nursing home interests, but Blue Hog Report set the story on fire by revealing Maggio’s posting on Tiger Droppings and digging into records to show seven PACs that had not been registered yet all received money from Fort Smith nursing home owner Michael Morton on the same day Maggio held a hearing on reducing the verdict against a Greenbrier home Morton controls. Four days later, on July 11, Maggio reduced the verdict by millions. The PACs began giving Maggio money in December, when the law allowed judicial candidates to begin receiving contributions.
Morton has poured money into many judicial races in Faulkner County or judges who come from that area. He’s the primary source of money for two unopposed candidates for Arkansas Supreme Court — Justice Karen Baker and Aopeals Court Judge Rhonda Wood. He’s provided most of the money for a circuit judge candidate in Conway, Doralee Chandler. He’s also been a major supporter of judicial candidate Troy Braswell. The candidates and the PACs that helped Maggio all have ties to Gilbert Baker, a former senator and lobbyist for the University of Central Arkansas. He’s supported the candidates personally, including reportedly appearing with them at Republican events. Linda Flanagain, an employee of a private consulting firm he started with legal help from Little Rock lawyer Chris Stewart, reportedly made the initial approach to Morton for judicial campaign contributions. Stewart was the agent for establishment of the PACs, but hasn’t said in whose interest he worked.
The special judges and existing judges in the circuit shall have exclusive authority over Maggio’s docket until further notice, the Supreme Court order said. Chief Justice Jim Hannah issued the order under a rule giving him appointment power of special judges to him during time of absence or “need.” He wrote:
“The supreme court has been advised that court operations in the Twentieth Judicial District, Division 2, have been disrupted and that the orderly administration of justice has been severely compromised, due, in part, to recusal issues.”
The action essentially puts Maggio on paid leave. Judges make about $140,000 a year.
Troy Braswell and Joe Don Winningham are candidates to succeed Maggio beginning in January. The election is in May. I reported earlier that Morton had poured $8,000 into Braswell’s candidacy. Braswell is considered part of the Republican coterie being promoted by Wood, Baker and other Republicans. Their messages and public appearances, make them appear to be , though running in non-partisan races, as Republicans and business-friendly “conservatives.” Braswell has reportedly been particularly clear in his public comments, but has refused to respond to my questions about those reports. Winningham has been the object of Rhonda Wood’s ire for ontesting a contempt order . Sensitive times in Faulkner County.