LITTLE ROCK — Facing questions about a potential conflict of interest, an Arkansas judge removed himself Wednesday from a case over a conservative group’s attack ad against a state Supreme Court justice two days after he ordered some TV stations to temporarily stop airing the spots.
Washington County Circuit Court Judge Doug Martin recused himself Wednesday from hearing Justice Courtney Goodson’s lawsuit over the ads by the Judicial Crisis Network, a Washington-based group criticizing Goodson ahead of the May 22 non-partisan judicial election. Martin delayed a hearing that was scheduled Thursday in the case but said the temporary restraining order he issued over the ads remains in effect. Martin referred the case to the circuit’s administrative judge so it could be reassigned.
Martin reported receiving income, through his wife, from the law firm of Goodson’s husband. Goodson is married to attorney John Goodson, a partner at the Texarkana firm of Keil and Goodson. In his 2017 statement of financial interest, Martin reported that his wife, Amy, earned more than $12,500 for legal services performed for Keil and Goodson. Martin did not respond to messages from The Associated Press on Wednesday. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette first reported about the income Tuesday night.
Goodson earlier Wednesday asked that the case be reassigned to another judge, citing concerns that had been raised about the court’s impartiality.
“This election has been tainted by dark money ads and it is not the desire of the plaintiffs for the public to question the impartiality of this court when such can be solved by a reassignment,” attorneys for Goodson said in their filing.
Goodson is running against state Appeals Court Judge Kenneth Hixson and Department of Human Services Chief Counsel David Sterling.
The ad criticized Goodson over gifts from donors and a pay raise the court requested last year. Judicial Crisis earlier Wednesday said the judge should have recused himself from the case, also citing a $1,000 contribution the judge received for his 2014 election from a donor whose gift is referred to in the ad.
“Judge Martin should be standing up for free speech instead of trying to protect his campaign donor and buddies,” Carrie Severino, the group’s chief counsel and policy director, said in a statement.
Goodson has filed identical lawsuits trying to block the ad from airing from other parts of the state. A judge plans to hold a hearing Friday morning on an effort to block the ads in the Little Rock area and another hearing is scheduled Monday on a lawsuit aimed at halting them in the Fort Smith area.
Goodson has called the ad false and defamatory, citing a finding from a nonprofit that was formed to respond to attacks in judicial races. A Fact Check by The Associated Press earlier this month also found that some of the ad’s claims regarding the pay raise request were misleading.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas criticized Martin’s order on Wednesday, calling it “clearly unconstitutional.”
“Judges should not be in the business of policing what can and cannot be said in a political campaign,” ACLU of Arkansas Executive Director Rita Sklar said in a statement.
JCN, which targeted Goodson during her unsuccessful bid for chief justice two years ago, has spent more than $626,000 on ads criticizing Goodson and Hixson, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, which tracks judicial election spending. Another group, the Republican State Leadership Committee, has spent more than $564,000 on TV ads and mailers in support of Sterling, according to a campaign finance report filed this week.