LITTLE ROCK — A former state legislator who pleaded guilty to a hot-check violation in 1995 is eligible to run for Cleburne County sheriff because the record of his conviction has been sealed, the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

LITTLE ROCK — A former state legislator who pleaded guilty to a hot-check violation in 1995 is eligible to run for Cleburne County sheriff because the record of his conviction has been sealed, the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled Thursday.


The state’s top court upheld a lower-court ruling that former state Rep. Josh Johnston is eligible to run for and hold public office. Brian Haile, who ran unsuccessfully for Cleburne County sheriff in 2014, had challenged Johnston’s eligibility.


Johnston pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor hot-check charge in June 1995 and paid restitution, a fine and court costs. In May 2104, Haile won a court ruling that Johnston was ineligible to run for sheriff because the offense met the definition of an infamous crime under Arkansas law.


In June 2014, a Cleburne County circuit judge granted a request from Johnston to seal the record of his conviction. On November 2 of last year, Johnston filed to run for sheriff in the 2016 election cycle.


Haile, a detective with the Heber Springs Police Department, again challenged Johnston’s eligibility. On Nov. 24 a circuit judge dismissed Haile’s lawsuit, finding that Johnston had become eligible because of the sealing of his record.


In its opinion Thursday, the Supreme Court upheld that ruling, finding that the Arkansas law allowing a record of a conviction to be sealed allows the offense to be treated as if it never happened.


"The plain and ordinary meaning in the statute is that a person whose record has been sealed shall have all privileges and rights restored and not affect any of his or her civil rights or liberties unless otherwise specifically provided by law. The plain language also provides that upon the entry of the uniform order, the person’s underlying conduct shall be deemed as a matter of law never to have occurred, and the person may state that the underlying conduct did not occur and that a record of the person that was sealed does not exist," the court said in an opinion written by Justice Karen Baker.


The court also rejected an argument by Haile that because the Cleburne County Circuit Court found in 2014 that Johnston was ineligible to run for public office, the matter was res judicata, or a thing that has been adjudicated and cannot be re-litigated.


The Supreme Court said the doctrine of res judicata did not apply because the question of what it means to seal a record was not part of the 2014 case.


Chief Justice Howard Brill said in a separate opinion that he concurred in the decision to uphold Johnston’s eligibility to run but said the doctrine of res judicata did not apply because the question of whether Johnston was eligible to be a candidate in the 2016 general election was not, and could not have been, part of the 2014 case.


Justice Paul Danielson joined in Brill’s concurring opinion.