Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox is eligible to run for re-election despite a past administrative suspension, a judge ruled Monday.
Special appointed judge Sam Bird rejected a challenge by voter John Kelly of North Little Rock to Fox’s qualifications. Bird said a 45-day suspension last year for late filing of his annual license fee did not disqualify Fox from serving as a circuit judge.
Fox became unopposed in his race after another special judge, John Cole, ruled March 19 that Little Rock lawyer Valerie Thompson Bailey was not qualified to challenge Fox’s re-election bid because of a past administrative suspension of her license. Amendment 80 to the Arkansas Constitution states that a circuit judge must have been a licensed lawyer in the state for six years immediately before taking office.
Cole’s ruling was followed quickly by a series of lawsuits challenging the qualifications of other judicial candidates.
In his ruling from the bench Monday after a hearing in Pulaski County Circuit Court that lasted a little over six hours, Bird said Fox’s law license was never revoked or terminated but was merely in “a state of suspension” and was reinstated immediately after Fox paid his fee and a late penalty.
Bird said he did not interpret Amendment 80 as barring a person who has been suspended from the practice of law for late payment of fees to be ineligible to run for a judgeship and noted that, according to testimony by Leslie Steen, the clerk of the state Supreme Court, 700 to 900 lawyers in the state are late in paying fees each year.
“I did not decide the Bailey case,” Bird said. “(Cole) could only decide the case to which he was assigned; I can only decide the case to which I am assigned. And apparently we disagree.”
Fox testified that he was late in paying his license fee because of an administrative error. His attorney, Mark Nichols, argued that Bailey’s case was completely different because her license was suspended for nine years. Bailey has said she took time away from being a lawyer to concentrate on raising her children.
Lawyer Sam Perroni, who represents both Bailey and Kelly, argued that the situation was the same, noting that in Cole’s ruling he stated that “a suspension is a suspension is a suspension.”
Bailey and Fox were suspended under a Supreme Court rule that requires a lawyer who is late in paying the annual license fee to be automatically suspended from the practice of law. Bird stopped short of declaring the rule unconstitutional — which Fox had asked him to do in a third-party complaint — saying the way it has been interpreted prior to Cole’s ruling is reasonable.
Last week, Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen ruled that the rule is unconstitutional, saying it denies lawyers and judges their constitutional right of due process by imposing a suspension without a hearing. Bird said Monday that Griffen’s ruling “is not binding on me.”
Perroni said after the hearing, “You’ve got two parties vying for the same position. One judge rules one way for the person that’s challenging the judge, and another judge rules another way for the person that’s a sitting judge. I just think that sends a bad message to the public. We’ll be appealing both cases, and we’ll let the Arkansas Supreme Court decide who’s right.”
Fox and Nichols declined to comment.