LITTLE ROCK — Gov. Mike Beebe has no legal opinion on whether two state Supreme Court justices he appointed should recuse themselves from further proceedings in a high-profile school funding case, a spokesman for the governor said Monday.
The state has asked the high court to reconsider its Nov. 29 decision that the Fountain Lake and Eureka Springs school districts can keep money they obtained through a statewide 25-mill property tax in excess of the state-mandated school funding level. An attorney for the districts on Friday asked the court not to grant a rehearing and asked that two justices appointed by Beebe recuse themselves because Beebe has filed a petition in the case.
The districts sued the state Department of Education after they were ordered to surrender excess millage revenue to the department. In a 4-3 decision, the high court ruled in favor of the districts, saying they could keep the money.
Beebe has said he agrees with the dissenting justices, who said the ruling undermines a decade of work by the state Legislature to establish an adequate and equitable system of funding public schools. Beebe has asked that he be allowed to file an amicus brief in the case arguing for a rehearing.
Eugene Sayre, attorney for the districts, argued in a motion that Justice Cliff Hoofman, whom Beebe appointed in November to complete the remainder of the term of retiring Justice Robert Brown, and Special Justice George Ellis, whom Beebe appointed to hear the case in place of Justice Jim Gunter, should step down from all further proceedings in the case.
Sayre argued that participation of the justices would “constitute a clear and blatant violation” of Canon 1, Rule 1.2 of the Arkansas Code of Judicial Conduct, which requires judges to act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the independence, integrity and impartiality of the judiciary and to avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety.
Sayre wrote that Beebe is seeking to become a litigant in the case and that by doing so “the governor has ‘tainted’ the appearance of the impartiality of Special Justice Ellis and appointed Justice Hoofman, in this appeal, to the extent that there is an ‘appearance of impropriety’ if either of these justices (who were ‘appointed’ to the court by the governor) should participate further, in any way, in consideration of the appellants’/cross appellees’ petition for rehearing.”
Beebe spokesman Matt DeCample said the governor had nothing to say about the request.
“That’s up to the justices to decide. (Beebe) doesn’t have a legal opinion on that,” DeCample said.
Ellis was one of the three dissenting justices in the case. At the time of the ruling, Hoofman had not yet replaced Brown, who also dissented.
Sayre also filed a response Friday to the Attorney General Dustin McDaniel’s petition for rehearing, arguing that McDaniel did not cite any specific error in the majority decision.
McDaniel spokesman Aaron Sadler declined to comment Monday on the motion for recusal or the response to the petition for rehearing.
“We will respond to Mr. Sayre’s arguments in writing to the court,” Sadler said.
The state has until Jan. 11 to respond.