A divided Arkansas Supreme Court on Thursday said Jefferson County Circuit Judge Robert H. Wyatt was wrong when he ordered the Jefferson County Board of Election Commissioners to allow former election coordinator Will Fox access to county property or to information necessary to conduct an election.
The order by Wyatt came after former County Judge Henry “Hank” Wilkins IV filed legal action against Mike Adam, the chairman of the Jefferson County Election Commission, and Stuart “Stu” Soffer, the commission secretary, alleging that they refused to allow Fox, who had been hired as election coordinator by Wilkins in advance of the Go Forward Pine Bluff special tax election, to do his job.
Wilkins contended in the legal filing that Adam and Soffer refused to work with Fox, resulting in problems with the tax election, and expressed concern that those problems would carry over to the September school elections.
In response, Adam and Soffer contended that Fox had interfered with a prior election and after directing him to stop, Soffer had to call the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department. They also contended that Soffer had the expertise needed to perform the election-related duties and they had decided not to use Fox.
At a hearing on the request, Leslie Bellamy, the director of elections for the Arkansas Secretary of State, testified that Arkansas law does not define the position of election coordinator, but does list duties for an election commission. She also testified that while a county judge may hire an election coordinator, the election commission does not have to work with that person if they choose not to.
Wyatt later ruled that even though the election coordinator could only perform duties assigned by the election commission, and the commission can refuse to use that person, the commission should perform the duties the law requires them to do. He also said the commission could not deny Fox or any other election coordinator access to county property or the information needed to conduct elections.
Adam and Soffer appealed that ruling to the Supreme Court, contending that it was improper and, writing for the majority, Associate Justice Courtney Hudson Goodson said, “we agree.”
Goodson said in the ruling that Adam and Soffer were correct when they argued that there was no clearly established right or duty for the election coordinator to have access to election-related information or items that would warrant Wyatt’s order.
Associate Justices Rhonda K. Wood and Josephine Linker Hart dissented, with Wood writing that she could find no error with Wyatt ordering the election commission to do their assigned duties.
“What is clear is that this was a highly political dispute within the county and that it had the potential to disrupt the election,” she said, going on to say that “Wyatt did not place blame on either side.”
She also wrote that from testimony at the hearing, “the legal relationship between the county judge, election coordinator and the county election commission is fraught with peril.”
Wood said there have been disputes in other counties over the duties and roles in the election process, and she urged the legislature to take action before a future election is compromised.
In her dissent, Hart said the majority of the court overlooked the characterization of the election commissioners in the matter.
She said that an an important detail omitted from the majority opinion was why the commissioners were refusing to work with Fox.
According to the filing by Wilkins’ attorneys, the commissioners had already missed one deadline and were in danger of missing another because there was a disagreement over them being paid for services they allegedly performed outside official meetings.
“Furthermore, the commissioners refused to cooperate with the coordinator in order to prevent him from performing these responsibilities in their stead,” Hart wrote.
She wrote that Fox was hired as a county employee to handle election-related responsibilities and said there is a “profound distinction between the commissioners’ simply declining to work with the coordinator and the commissioners’ affirmatively preventing the coordinator from performing the responsibilities the county judge hired him to perform.”