LITTLE ROCK — Amid growing questions and lawsuits over Arkansas judicial candidates’ eligibility for office, two candidates issued statements Thursday asserting their confidence that they meet the qualifications for the offices they seek.
"I believe I meet the qualifications to serve on the Arkansas Supreme Court and I am prepared to defend my right to do so," said state Court of Appeals Judge Rhonda Wood, who is running unopposed.
Faulkner County Circuit Judge H.G. Foster said in a statement Thursday that "I have confidence in my qualifications to do this job" and complained about the "negative tone" of his race with Doralee Chandler for a Division 5 seat on the circuit court. Foster now holds a Division 1 seat that he filled by appointment.
Chandler has filed a lawsuit challenging Foster’s eligibility to serve. Wood said she issued her statement not in response to any legal challenge but because media reports had questioned her eligibility.
The controversy began with a March 19 ruling by special appointed judge John Cole that Valerie Thompson Bailey is not eligible to challenge Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox’s re-election bid because her law license was suspended as recently as 2011.
Cole said the suspension meant Bailey did not meet the qualifications under Amendment 80 of the Arkansas Constitution, which states that Supreme Court justices and Court of Appeals judges must have been licensed lawyers in the state for at least eight years before taking office; circuit judges must have been licensed lawyers for six years before taking office; and district judges must have been licensed lawyers for four years before taking office.
In the wake of that ruling, Chandler filed a lawsuit this week challenging Foster’s eligibility because of past suspensions of his license for failure to pay dues to the Arkansas Bar Association. Foster told the Arkansas News Bureau on Tuesday he was embarrassed that he had forgotten to pay his dues in a timely manner but said he would continue his campaign.
"I have confidence in the favorable application of the law to this case," Foster said in his statement Thursday.
Also, voter Lonnie Williams filed a lawsuit this week challenging the eligibility of Angela Byrd, a candidate for a Division 4 seat on the Faulkner County Circuit Court, over a temporary administrative suspension of her license last year.
Byrd told the Arkansas News Bureau on Thursday that she is confident she is qualified to serve.
"I believe that the people have a right to vote on who they want in that position, so we’re going to defend their right to do so," she said.
Wood’s license was suspended briefly in 2008 for failure to pay dues. She said in her statement Thursday that on Feb. 1, 2008, she attempted to pay her dues in a timely manner, but she accidentally wrote the check for $100 instead of $200. She said she immediately corrected the error when she was notified of it on March 6, but that was three days after the deadline.
Wood said she was not aware of the brief suspension until she learned of it from the news media this week.
"I have served as a circuit court judge from 2007-2012 and as a Court of Appeals judge since 2013. Both positions also required me to be a licensed attorney for a certain period of time and no person has ever before questioned my qualifications to serve on the bench," Wood said.
Supreme Court records also show that Fox’s license has been temporarily suspended within the past six years for failure to pay dues — raising questions about whether anyone can be elected to his seat in the May 20 judicial election.