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Judges' recusals complicate Laney Harris' lawsuit

Judges' recusals complicate Laney Harris' lawsuit

State high court will have to appoint someone to oversee defamation case

June 23rd, 2018 by Lynn LaRowe in Texarkana News

All three of the circuit judges serving the judicial district that includes Miller County, Ark., have recused themselves from a defamation lawsuit filed by a Texarkana, Ark., city board member against two community volunteers.

Ward 2 Director Laney Harris filed suit earlier this month against Deanna O'Malley and James Zumwalt in connection with the 2017 RailFest community festival at which both volunteered their time. The case was originally assigned to Circuit Judge Carlton Jones. Jones recused himself and the case was assigned to Circuit Judge Brent Haltom. Haltom recused himself and the case was assigned to Circuit Judge Kirk Johnson.

Now that Johnson has recused as well, the Arkansas Supreme Court is tasked with appointing a judge from a different Arkansas jurisdiction to oversee proceedings in the case. A recusal typically occurs when the judge assigned the case determines he or she has a conflict, such as familiarity with or a relationship with one or more of the parties. Judges will recuse from a case to avoid even the appearance of impropriety.

Texarkana lawyer Steve Harrelson filed a motion to dismiss Harris' complaint June 14 and sent a letter to the court asking that a hearing to address the motion be scheduled as soon as possible.

Harris' complaint against O'Malley and Zumwalt accuses them of making defamatory statements about him, which led to a June 2017 censure of Harris and his removal by the board from the city's Advertising & Promotion Commission. Zumwalt confronted Harris at RailFest 2017 after Harris was reportedly seen photographing the event while hiding in nearby bushes.

At the end of a discussion, Zumwalt offered to shake Harris' hand but Harris refused, according to Zumwalt and Harris' complaint. O'Malley volunteered to organize the event when it became apparent it might be canceled because of a lack of available city staff. O'Malley was the volunteer organizer for RailFest 2018 as well.

Harris' complaint accuses the volunteers of committing a variety of civil torts and of conspiring with the city to besmirch Harris' reputation. Harrelson's response on behalf of O'Malley and Zumwalt points out that the truth is a defense to defamation. In other words, if Harris was hiding in bushes and taking pictures, saying that he was hiding in bushes and taking pictures is not defamatory.

Harrelson further notes that Harris' complaint appears to seek an injunction in its heading but exactly what Harris wants O'Malley and Zumwalt enjoined from doing isn't addressed in the body of the complaint. O'Malley and Zumwalt don't have the authority to remove Harris' censure or to reinstate him as a member of the A&P Commission.

Harris has also filed suit against the city of Texarkana, Ark.; Texarkana, Ark., Mayor Ruth Penney-Bell and each of the board's other members in the Texarkana Division of the Western District of Arkansas federal court. Harris asks in a rambling, 47-page complaint that the board's censure of him be declared "null and void" and asks the court to find that the city defendants have violated his civil rights.

The federal case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Susan Hickey. None of the defendants has yet filed a response.


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