I was not aware of a professor at Bowen named “Wood,” so I assumed this was an adjunct. At the same time…I became curious. Given that Supreme Court Justice Rhonda Wood previously worked at the law school as an Assistant Dean, could it be that she was now teaching a class there as well? So I asked, via the Freedom of Information Act, and received the following response from Rejena Grotjohn at UALR:
I’m writing in response to your June 29th request for information regarding Justice Wood. Justice Wood will be teaching our Advanced Litigation course during the upcoming academic year. However, she has volunteered to teach this course and will not be compensated for her work. I have attached an email exchange regarding this arraignment for your review.
And here are the emails that were attached to that FOIA response:
A couple things jump out here.
First, regarding Justice Wood’s “volunteer[ing] to teach,”
it is worth mentioning that she had to do the job on a volunteer basis; as an elected official, it would have been illegal for her to take paid state employment during the period for which she was elected. UPDATE: Oddly enough, while it would be illegal for a constitutional officer or a legislator to take this job for pay, it is not illegal for an elected judge to do the same. Which is weird, but whatever.
Second, and more importantly, is the issue of this teaching position eating into the time for Wood’s judicial duties. The class meets from 4:30 to 6:30pm on Wednesdays. Assuming she is not getting to class at the last possible second, that likely means that she is leaving the Court around 4pm or slightly after. The problem is that the Court has its weekly conference between the justices regarding pending cases on Wednesday afternoons. Given what we just witnessed with the delay in the marriage-equality case, is it really a good idea (in terms of public perception) for a sitting justice to be ducking out early on the day of conference?
Indeed, part of the reason that other justices campaigned for higher raises for the Supreme Court was because, it was implied, the workload of the Court was high, and the Justices should be compensated in accordance with the amount of work they are required to perform. Such a position does not seem particularly compatible with the implications of Justice Wood’s new volunteer position, which seems to suggest that she has ample free time, even before 5pm, in which to do stuff other than her elected, judicial duties.
If that is not the case–if, in fact, the judicial duties of the Court are as full time and burdensome as suggested by others–then we have a bigger problem here. You see, the Advanced Litigation class is the first-semester class for the UALR Law School’s trial team. Preparation for the Spring competition (as mentioned in the emails above) begins during the Fall semester. So the two-hour Wednesday class is much more than just the two hours on Wednesdays. It involves weekend meetings and prep work as well. Can we be certain that Justice Wood is going to use her time at the Court on Court business and not in preparation for her teaching/coaching duties?
Not to mention, in the Spring, the Trial Team travels to at least one competition in the late winter/early Spring. Last year, it was in Lexington, KY. If — as happened this year — a team from Bowen were to win the regional competition, they would then travel to the national competition a few weeks later. This year, the national competition was in Houston, TX, and it stretched from March 11 through 15, a span that included three work days. In that situation, how could Justice Wood justify leaving the Court for three days to travel as part of her extrajudicial volunteering? After all, Rule 2.1 of the Arkansas Code of Judicial Conduct requires, “The duties of judicial office, as prescribed by law, shall take precedence over all of a judge’s personal and extrajudicial activities.” And, if the answer is that Justice Wood would have someone else attend the national competition in that scenario, then it is a disservice to the students on the trial team for Justice Wood to coach/teach them in the first place.
Which, actually brings up an additional issue from an even more practical standpoint. Prior to Justice Wood’s acceptance of the position, the Advanced Litigation course had been taught, and the Trial Team coached, by Professor Michael Johnson, who was certainly more than qualified to coach a law school trial team:
Professor Johnson was an attorney with the United States Department of Justice from 1973 to 2010. He served as the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas, and as the First Assistant/Criminal Chief for the same office. From 1973-1984, he was with the Civil Rights Division during which he handled complex voting rights cases, and criminal matters concerning racially motivated violence, and criminal police misconduct. In 1984, Professor Johnson was the 34th person in the history of the United States Justice Department named as Senior Litigation Counsel, a meritorious designation reflecting his advocacy skills in complex litigation.
With that in mind, it is unclear how Justice Wood could be considered a good fit for this position in the first place. Her experience as a trial lawyer is next to zero (as is her experience as a day-to-day lawyer in general). While she has some civil trial experience as a judge, she spent the bulk of her years as a judge doing juvenile/domestic matters for the most part, quite detached from much of the reality of civil trial practice. She has a few years as an appellate judge, sure, but that is not much help to the trial team.
The long and short it, however, is this: Justice Baker argued for higher pay for justices, stating, “each supreme court justice has many administrative responsibilities, in addition to the task of deciding the most complex and difficult cases that arise in this State, and answering questions certified to us by the Federal Courts.” If this is true, and the job of being an Associate Justice on the Arkansas Supreme Court really is one that requires a full-time commitment, then taking a teaching position (even unpaid) that will eat into the time available for the completion of those judicial duties is by definition improper.
If, on the other hand, the demands of an Associate Justice position really are something that one can complete in less than a full-time schedule, freeing up hours and days for outside activities, then perhaps we need to look at how the court functions and re-assess some things.
Neither of these hypothetical scenarios troubles me. Each is what it is. However, I would wager that there are a number of elected judges, especially on the Arkansas Supreme Court, who would take issue with the less-than-full-time characterization. Maybe someone will go so far as to take that issue up with Justice Wood herself.