LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — A judge considering Arkansas' unprecedented plan to execute seven inmates over 11 days before its supply of an execution drug expires has had a hand in key decisions on several social issues in the state.
Judge Kristine Baker, who was appointed to U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas by President Barack Obama, ruled in 2014 that Arkansas' gay marriage ban was unconstitutional. A year later, she blocked an Arkansas law that would have restricted the use of abortion pills.
Arkansas, which hasn't executed anyone since 2005, is preparing to execute seven inmates before its supply of midazolam expires at the end of the month. Baker is considering the legality of that plan this week.
Baker, 46, earned two degrees from Saint Louis University and a law degree in 1996 from the University of Arkansas.
From 1996 to 1998, Baker was a clerk for the chief judge, Susan Webber Wright, on the federal court where Baker now sits. During that time, Wright handled Paula Jones' sexual harassment lawsuit against then-President Bill Clinton and also reversed the death sentence of a man convicted of killing his former in-laws. The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated Si-Fu William Frank Parker's death sentence and he was ultimately executed.
Baker later became a partner at the Quattlebaum, Grooms, Tull & Burrow law firm in Little Rock, where she worked in commercial litigation, employment law and Freedom of Information cases. She also helped represent The Associated Press in an unsuccessful lawsuit seeking records to determine which state employees were editing Wikipedia pages on state time.
WHAT THEY SAY
After the Senate confirmed Baker's judgeship in 2012, Republican Sen. John Boozman predicted she'd be successful in her new role.
"She has the right mix of character, experience and legal knowledge to serve the people of Arkansas well," the Arkansas senator said.
Conner Eldridge, who clerked at Baker's law firm 15 years ago and went on to become the U.S. attorney for western Arkansas before an unsuccessful Senate run, praised her work ethic.
"She'll work around the clock if she needs to get the right result for this," Eldridge said Friday, noting that he didn't have any cases before Baker while he was a prosecutor.
In addition to decisions on gay marriage and abortion, major rulings she has made include ordering the state last year not to block Medicaid funds for Planned Parenthood because of undercover videos anti-abortion activists made of themselves trying to buy fetal tissue.
Jane Duke, a former U.S. attorney for eastern Arkansas and a longtime friend of Baker's, said the judge will follow the law but is not afraid of uncharted waters where there's not a legal precedent.
"If she has to rely on the fact there is no precedent, she is someone who is certainly able and confident in making a decision that is perhaps a logical extension of existing law," said Duke, who did not serve as U.S. attorney while Baker was on the bench.
WHAT SHE HAS SAID
At her confirmation hearing in 2012, after a Republican senator noted that she had supported Democratic candidates, Baker rejected any notion that politics would influence her.
"I don't believe political beliefs or personal views have any role in the position of a district court judge," she said.
At the same hearing, describing her work among prisoners and the indigent, she said she would "be patient and treat them with respect" as a judge.
"Most litigants, win or lose, remember how they are treated" by a judge, she said.
Baker must rule whether the state's plan to execute seven prisoners from April 17 through April 27 would violate their rights to meaningful counsel and access to the courts. Several lawyers and public defenders represent multiple inmates, prompting complaints they could be spread thin while fighting for their clients' lives on separate fronts, particularly the parole board and state and federal courts.
"Our country does not participate in mass executions," lawyers for the inmates have said. "Execution schedules (like Arkansas') do not respect the innate dignity of the condemned."
The state maintains that the men committed horrendous crimes and that justice would be served by carrying out their executions. State officials say the court challenge is a ploy to push the executions to May 1 or later, when they would be effectively stopped because the state's supply of midazolam will have expired.
Associated Press Writer Andrew DeMillo contributed to this report
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Kelly P. Kissel, The Associated Press