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Judge who blocked ads against Arkansas Supreme Court justice has potential conflict of interest

Judge who blocked ads against Arkansas Supreme Court justice has potential conflict of interest

Judge Martin's wife received income from Texarkana law firm Keil and Goodson

May 16th, 2018 by Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in Arkansas News

John Goodson and Courtney Hudson Goodson are shown in this photo. (via Bobby Ampezzan)

Photo by Arkansas Democrat-Gazette /Texarkana Gazette.

A Northwest Arkansas judge who ordered that attack ads critical of Supreme Court Justice Courtney Goodson be taken off the air this week reported receiving income, through his wife, from the Texarkana law firm of Goodson's husband.

Washington County Circuit Judge Doug Martin issued a temporary restraining order Monday afternoon against several television stations in the area that had been airing ads that Goodson alleged to be "false, misleading, and defamatory."

Courtney Goodson is married to class-action attorney John Goodson, a partner at the Texarkana firm of Keil & Goodson.

In his 2017 statement of financial interest report, Martin reported that his wife, Amy, earned more than $12,500 for legal services performed at Keil & Goodson. Statements of financial interest don't give specific amounts of compensation but rather whether compensation is at least a specific amount.

Campaign finance records also show that Amy Martin contributed $50 to Justice Goodson's campaign for chief justice in 2015.

Judge Martin did not return messages left Tuesday evening at his judicial chambers or on a personal phone. A listed phone number for Amy Martin could not be found.

Judge Martin's order came in the midst of Goodson's re-election campaign for a seat on the high court. In that race, both she and another opponent, Court of Appeals Judge Kenneth Hixson, have been the target of hundreds of thousands of dollars in negative TV ads paid for by out-of-state groups.

A third candidate in the race, Department of Human Services attorney David Sterling, has denied any affiliation with the ads.

On Monday, Goodson filed dual lawsuits in Washington and Pulaski counties seeking immediate injunctions to halt the airing of ads by the Judicial Crisis Network saying Goodson took expensive gifts from trial attorneys and sought a raise while on the court. Goodson filed a third lawsuit Tuesday to halt the ads in the Fort Smith area.

In court papers, Goodson's attorney argued that the ads mischaracterized the justice's record, noting that she had recused from cases involving donors and that the requested raise -- which was not approved -- was sought by the court as a whole.

In Pulaski County, Circuit Judge Chris Piazza scheduled a hearing on Goodson's request for Friday, but took no other immediate action. Piazza was assigned the case after another judge, Timothy Fox, recused.

In Washington County, Judge Martin granted the emergency request for a restraining order without response from the defendants -- several TV stations and cable service providers -- until a hearing that he scheduled for Thursday. Martin was also assigned the case after the recusal of another judge on the circuit, Beth Storey Bryan.

Asked if Martin's spousal connections to Keil & Goodson created a conflict, Courtney Goodson's attorney, Lauren Hoover, said that the decision to recuse is up to the judge himself.

"It's no secret we're excited about the [temporary restraining order]," Hoover said, adding that a recusal by Martin "will not end this litigation."

To succeed in defamation cases, public officials such as Goodson must meet a higher standard of harm known as "actual malice," the U.S. Supreme Court has said. By issuing a temporary restraining order, Martin found that Goodson had a "substantial likelihood" of success at proving her claims at a full hearing.

Asked if Martin's finances should have required him to recuse from the Goodson case, state Judicial Discipline & Disability Commission Director David Sachar declined to comment on the specific matter.

However, he pointed to the Arkansas Code of Judicial Conduct, Rule 2.11, which states "a judge shall disqualify himself or herself in any proceeding in which the judge's impartiality might reasonably be questioned."

That includes cases where the judge or the judge's spouse have "an economic interest in the subject matter in controversy or in a party to the proceeding."

"Generally, judges should recuse if there's actual prejudice or bias on the judge's part, or the appearance of prejudice or bias on the judge's part," said Arkansas Judicial Council President Judge Wiley Branton, who declined to comment on specific matters.

It's unclear the exact nature of Amy Martin's work for Keil & Goodson, or whether she worked full time. In 2017, she also reported receiving income as a private attorney, an adjunct professor of business law at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, and as consultant for a California-based fashion company.

Both Amy Martin and John Goodson's partner, Matt Keil, are listed as attorneys together representing the plaintiff in a federal court case in the Eastern District of Arkansas last year.

A phone call to Keil & Goodson was unanswered Tuesday evening.

John Goodson serves on the board of trustees of the University of Arkansas System. He is also listed as one of three principals of the consulting firm Washington Advocacy Group, which lists Amy Martin as legal counsel on the front page of its website.

The firm offers "strategic and tactical advice to navigate through Congress and executive agencies, or [help] looking for opportunities to grow a client's business," according to a website. A call to the agency's listed number prompted an automated response that did not offer voice mail.

Prior to serving as a circuit judge in Washington County, Judge Martin was appointed to fill the vacancy on the Arkansas Court of Appeals when Goodson left to serve on the Supreme Court.

Information for this article was contributed by Hunter Field and Lisa Hammersly of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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