One of the most-common refrains in comment sections around the internet in the wake of the first story about Judge Mike Maggio was some version of “how can this guy sit as a judge in front of anyone at this point?” And that’s a fair question; after all, Rule 1.2 of the Arkansas Code of Judicial Conduct explicitly states:
A judge shall act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the independence, integrity, and impartiality of the judiciary, and shall avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety.
I think it’s safe to say that disparaging pretty much every demographic except white, male LSU fans could raise an appearance of impropriety for any litigant who did not fit that mold. But you know what really raises an appearance of impropriety?
Having a plan to funnel money into your Court of Appeals race go into effect the exact same day that you decide to hold a hearing on whether to reduce a jury award. Oh, and also where the person who enacts the money-funneling plan was the owner of the nursing home against whom the jury award had been imposed.
Let’s back up.
In February 2012, Estate of Martha Bull v. Greenbrier Care Center, Central Arkansas Nursing Center, and Michael Morton was filed in Faulkner County and was assigned to Judge Maggio. Morton, as you may know if you have loved ones who are nursing-home age, is the owner of Greenbrier Care Center d/b/a Greenbrier Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, as well as Central Arkansas Nursing Center and many, many other nursing-home facilities.
The complaint alleged that Martha Bull, aged 76, had died at the nursing home on April 7, 2008, due to neglect and negligence on the part of Greenbrier Care Center staff. Because Greenbrier was managed by Central Arkansas Nursing, which was in turn owned by Morton, the complaint argued that Central Arkansas Nursing and Morton were also vicariously liable for the death of Ms. Bull.
On April 19, 2013, Maggio entered orders that dismissed Morton and Central Arkansas Nursing from the suit.
At trial, the jury heard testimony regarding the following:
Ms. Bull was admitted to the nursing home March 28, 2008 for 30 days of rehabilitation after a stroke. During the night of April 6, 2008 she said she was in severe pain, sweating and unable to have a bowel movement. Nothing was done. The next shift, she continued to complain. A physician was called at 2:20 p.m. April 7. He sent an order to have her transferred to an emergency room for evaulation in light of a history of stroke and abdominal abscess. The director of nursing received the fax at 3:34 p.m., but was leaving for the day. The nursing director sent it by fax to a new fax in a closet of the nursing home wing in which Bull lived. No one saw it. Bull wasn’t sent to the emergency room. She screamed throughout the afternoon, so loudly that residents on other halls complained. She was found dead at 10:20 p.m. April 7. The faxed physician’s order was found the next day.
The jury returned a verdict in favor of Ms. Bull’s estate and awarded the estate $5.2 million on May 8, 2013. The order was entered on June 6, 2013.
On July 8, 2013, Judge Maggio granted Greenbrier Care Center’s motion for a remittitur hearing, because he found that the $5.2M award against the nursing home “shock[ed] the conscience of the court.” (Quick aside: Remittitur is the procedural process by which a judge may reduce a jury award that is excessive as a matter of law or is otherwise unconscionable).
Also occurring on July 8, 2013?
- Sherwood Nursing (owned by Morton) contributed $3,000 to GO Good Government PAC. That PAC was registered by Chris Stewart on July 31, 2013, and the PAC donated $2,000 to Maggio on December 5, 2013, and $250 on January 28, 2014.
- MSM Properties, Inc. (owned by Morton) contributed $3,000 to Thomas Group In PAC. That PAC was registered by Chris Stewart on July 31, 2013, and the PAC donated $2,000 to Maggio on December 5, 2013, and $250 on January 28, 2014.
- Quapaw Care & Rehabilitation Center (owned by Morton) contributed $3,000 to Judicial Reform PAC / Citizens for Judicial Reform. That PAC was registered by Chris Stewart on July 31, 2013, and the PAC donated $500 to Maggio on December 31, 2013, and $1,000 on January 28, 2014.
- Briarwood Nursing (owned by Morton) contributed $3,000 to Citizens for Information Technology PAC. That PAC was registered by Chris Stewart on July 31, 2013, and the PAC donated $1,450 to Maggio on January 28, 2014.
- Central Arkansas Nursing Centers (owned by Morton, and previously a defendant in the case above) contributed $3,000 to DBH 2 PAC. That PAC was registered (late) by Chris Stewart on August 8, 2013, and the PAC donated $2,000 to Maggio on December 5, 2013, and $1,000 on January 28, 2014.
- Michael Morton contributed $3,000 to Conservative Persons in PAC. That PAC was registered by Chris Stewart on July 31, 2013, and the PAC donated $500 to Maggio on December 31, 2013, and $1,000 on January 28, 2014.
- Good Shephard (owned by Morton) contributed $3,000 to Taxpayers for Change PAC. That PAC was registered by Chris Stewart on July 31, 2013, and the PAC donated $1,000 to Maggio on — wait for it — January 28, 2014.
Lo and behold, Maggio ultimately entered an order reducing the award to $1M.
So, let’s see here. We’ve got seven PACs, none of which existed prior to July 31, 2013, and all of which received the same amount of money from Michael Morton (or a Morton-owned entity) on the exact same date, which also happens to be the date that Maggio agreed to a remittitur hearing, some 32 days after the order was entered.
All seven PACs were registered by Chris Stewart on the same day (save for one). All seven PACs have PO Boxes right near one another in the 72203 ZIP code. All seven show the money from Morton or his entity as the first contribution to the PAC. And, most damning, the PACs all gave money directly to Maggio on the same dates. Five of the seven gave money only to Maggio, and a sixth gave only $250 to one other candidate.
When you view all of this through the lens of “Morton just happened to form these PACs on the day that Maggio agreed to a remittitur hearing,” and you add in what we already know about the sanctity with which Maggio treats his role as a judge, this is well beyond a simple appearance of impropriety (though it is definitely that). It is an appearance that Mike Maggio let Michael Morton buy his way out of full responsibility for the death of Martha Bull for less than one cent on the dollar.
It is, quite frankly, an appearance of a completely corrupt judge.
UPDATE: Three other things warrant mentioning about this whole fact pattern.
1. This is the only time I can locate where Morton went to the trouble of creating PACs to funnel money to candidates. Normally, he just uses his myriad business interests and donates $2,000 from each entity. See, for example, the tens of thousands he gave to Rhonda Wood in her last race. The fact that Morton would create PACS specifically to get money to Maggio speaks volumes about both the propriety of his actions and the parties’ awareness of what they were doing.
2. Morton did not donate any money to Maggio’s campaign for circuit judge in 2008. Yet he’s suddenly creating new entities that exist almost solely to send Maggio money, and he started created them on the very day that Maggio agreed to a remittitur hearing? Yeah, that stinks to the highest of heavens.
3. According to a couple people I know who were close to the case, the reason Maggio reduced the jury award to $1M was because Morton carried $1M in insurance coverage, so a $1M award wouldn’t actually cost Morton anything. Which means that Morton was apparently able to remove any personal liability in the case for the low, low price of $21,000. If that doesn’t make you angry, you aren’t paying attention.