Judge sees no conflict of interest in hearing case against SNF owner who contributed $40k to her campaign

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An Arkansas Supreme Court justice who received campaign funds from a nursing home owner said she has no plans to hand off hearing an appeal in a wrongful death lawsuit against him.

The lawsuit was brought against Michael Morton, owner of Robinson Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in North Little Rock, AK, by the family of a resident who died at the facility in 2014. Morton then requested an appeal of a court's decision that the lawsuit be given class-action status.

The resident's family filed a motion to recuse Justice Rhonda Wood from hearing the appeal, saying a $40,000 campaign contribution Morton gave her in 2013 created a conflict of interest.

In her decision, Wood wrote that the total amount of Morton's contribution was “insufficient to warrant disqualification,” and that the time that has passed between her campaign and the appeal's expected spring 2017 hearing date was a “sufficient cooling-off period.”

“All judges have a duty to recuse when the situation warrants but we also have an equal duty to sit when the facts do not justify doing otherwise,” Wood wrote. “Injustice occurs when one makes the wrong decision either way, which is why I certainly did not make this decision lightly.”

Morton's campaign contributions landed another official, former circuit court judge Michael Maggio, in hot water in 2015. Maggio reduced negligence damages against another facility owned by Morton from $5.2 million to $1 million. He admitted it was in exchange for a $24,000 campaign donation; the scheme landed him a 10-year prison sentence.