Two weeks ago, an Arkansas trial court judge was revealed as the person behind an anonymous online pseudonym linked to racist, homophobic, and sexist comments on a sports website. Circuit Judge Mike Maggio apologized for the comments and stepped out of the 2014 race for a seat on the Arkansas Court of Appeals.
But while Maggio was still in the race, his campaign received at least $10,000 in contributions linked to a corporate chain of nursing homes that benefited from a major ruling in their favor by Maggio. The donation was made through several entities owned or controlled by Michael Morton, to several Political Action Committees (PACs) that were set up by the same entities. Just days after the entities donated thousands to these PACs, Maggio issued a ruling that lowered a verdict against Morton’s company from $5.2 million to $1 million. Several months after the ruling, the PACs contributed the funds to Maggio’s campaign.
The lawsuit was filed by the family of a patient, Martha Bull, who died just days after being admitted to one of Morton’s nursing homes. (The Arkansas Times described the plaintiffs’ tragic allegations.) A blogger at Blue Hog Report said that it appeared Judge Maggio had allowed Morton to “buy his way out of full responsibility for the death of Martha Bull for less than one cent on the dollar.”
The state’s judicial ethics agency confirmed on Monday that it is investigating the “general allegations concerning campaign contributions” to Maggio’s campaign. Though Morton failed to elect Maggio to the appeals court, he has also donated generously to an incumbent appeals court judge who is running for the state supreme court. Columnist Max Brantley noted that well more than half of Judge Rhonda Wood’s campaign contributions came from “nursing home businesses and operators,” including Morton’s corporations.
The nursing home industry’s increasing financial support for judicial candidates comes after the Arkansas Supreme Court struck down a tort reform bill in 2011. These bills make it harder for the victims of nursing home malpractice and other forms of negligence to seek justice in court.
A 2013 Center for American Progress report looked at similar trends in other states and found that, after state supreme courts struck down tort reform laws in the 1980s and 1990s, corporate groups began spending big to elect judges who would uphold these laws. “In the span of a few short years, big business succeeded in transforming courts such as the Texas and Ohio supreme courts into forums where individuals face steep hurdles to holding corporations accountable.”
These political battles over tort reform are likely to attract even more money to judicial elections—money from trial lawyers who oppose limiting liability and money from big businesses that support it. The scandal in Arkansas shows that the type of independent spending unleashed by the U.S. Supreme Court in Citizens United is having a corrupting influence in judicial races.
Some courts have not been caught up in this political battle over tort reform, because their judges are selected through a “merit selection” process, rather than contested elections. The Florida Supreme Court, for example, recently ruled unconstitutional a bill which would have limited the verdict awarded to the family of Michelle McCall, a mother who died following childbirth. A nurse failed to inform anyone of McCall’s “dangerously low” blood pressure. The new mother went into “shock and cardiac arrest as a result of severe blood loss. It is not clear how long Ms. McCall had been in this state, since no one had monitored her or checked her status for the hour following” a surgical procedure.
The Florida Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional a law which strictly limited the non-economic damages available to the multiple claimants in this lawsuit. The court found no “medical malpractice crisis” to justify the limits, and it doubted that the limits would even remedy such a crisis. The court also called the bill “inherently discriminatory,” noting that “the greater the number of survivors and the more devastating their losses are, the less likely they are to be full compensated for those losses.”