State Supreme Court Justice's Meeting With Scalia Scrutinized

Make of this what you will:

Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Courtney Hudson Goodson attended the Jan. 7 oral argument before the U.S. Supreme Court of a case out of Miller County over the legality of a class-action legal strategy used extensively by her husband, John Goodson.

What’s more, she had a meeting that day with one of the justices who will decide the question: Antonin Scalia.

A seat at the hearing and the meeting were arranged by retired Arkansas Justice Robert Brown, who had met Scalia previously and has asked his office for such assistance for others in the past.

“I just thought it would be great for her to be at the oral arguments and for him to say hello,” Brown told Whispers last week. “My pitch to him was, ‘This was a state supreme court justice; say hello to her.’ That’s what I told his assistant.”

Brown said he disclosed Justice Goodson’s specific interest in the case being heard that day, Standard Fire Insurance v. Knowles.

Although she told numerous people about her meeting with Scalia, Justice Goodson did not respond to our request for comments for almost two weeks. Then she responded only through emails sent by Arkansas Supreme Court spokeswoman Stephanie Harris.

“Shortly after oral argument, Justice Scalia and Justice Goodson exchanged pleasantries,” Harris wrote. “Justice Scalia was made aware of Justice Goodson’s husband’s involvement in the case before he extended the courtesy to her. They never spoke about the case.”

Courtesy is also the word a spokeswoman for the U.S. Supreme Court used.

“Justice Scalia briefly greeted Justice Goodson, whom he did not know, at the request of one of her colleagues on the Arkansas Supreme Court. The extending of such a courtesy is not at all uncommon,” Kathy Arberg, public information officer for the U.S. Supreme Court, said in an email.

But how common is it for a U.S. Supreme Court justice to agree to a courtesy meeting with a state Supreme Court justice on the very day that the U.S. Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments on a case that concerns the state justice’s husband’s very lucrative (and controversial) law practice? Whispers can’t answer that question.

Appearances

Since Justice Goodson would not answer in person, we didn’t get any answer to our question about how her meeting with Scalia fulfills some of her obligations under the Arkansas Code of Judicial Conduct, specifically:

Rule 1.2 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.

Rule 1.3 A judge shall not abuse the prestige of judicial office to advance the personal or economic interests of the judge or others, or allow others to do so.

Harris did say this: “If all it takes is a five-minute meeting with Scalia to curry favor for her husband, then we are all in serious trouble.”

Justice Goodson was elected to her first eight-year term on the state’s highest court in May 18, 2010, but her name on that ballot was Courtney Hudson Henry. Her first husband, Fayetteville attorney Mark Henry, filed for divorce less than a month later.

By then — according to the financial disclosure she filed for 2010 — Justice Henry had started accepting gifts from John Goodson that would add up to more than $100,000 in less than seven months. Before the end of 2011, Henry and Goodson were married.

Goodson is a partner in the Keil & Goodson firm in Texarkana. And while neither Goodson nor his firm is a party to the case currently under review by the U.S. Supreme Court, the question at issue in Standard Fire Insurance v. Knowles goes straight to the heart of Keil & Goodson’s legal practice.

The plaintiffs’ firm has been able to keep class-action cases from being transferred out of Miller County Circuit Court and into federal court, as defendants can do under the Class Action Fairness Act of 2005, by stipulating that they don’t intend to seek more than the threshold amount of $5 million in damages and attorneys’ fees. And there, according to companies that Keil & Goodson (and other firms) have targeted, the cases languish until it simply becomes cheaper to settle than fight.

Class-action settlements (not jury verdicts) in Miller County have reportedly produced attorneys’ fees in excess of $400 million over the past seven years, but it is unknown how much was paid to their clients.