A stampede for the bench 

Judicial politics in 2008 include tests of four local incumbents.

If judicial candidates are allowed more robust speech thanks to court rulings, 2008 will offer many tests of the impact in Pulaski County, with contests likely for at least seven judgeships, including four seats with incumbents.

Circuit Court Judge Rita Gruber, who currently hears juvenile cases, will challenge Judge Wendell Griffen for his court of appeals seat. Gruber said she was running because the court of appeals lacks a juvenile judge. Asked whether Griffen's recent publicity were a factor in her decision, Gruber said, “I don't want to say that that was a primary reason. Some people have talked to me [about Griffen]. I do know that there has been some dissatisfaction with Judge Griffen.”

Griffen emphasized that the appeals bench differs from a one-judge circuit court in significant ways. “At the appellate bench, you are working with at least two other people. We're deciding not just individual cases, but also points of law that will be relied on by lawyers around the state.” Griffen also said that his 11-year tenure as an appeals judge should give him an advantage in the race. “It boils down to the issue of experience,” he said.

Two incumbents on the Sixth Judicial Circuit (Pulaski and Perry Counties) can expect an election challenge. Gregg Almand of Little Rock, a lawyer in private practice, will run against Judge Collins Kilgore, who hears domestic, civil, and probate cases. In an e-mail message, Almand said that he's running because “the incumbent has lost the desire to do what is necessary to equally and adequately perform the duties of the office.” He declined to elaborate. Kilgore, of Little Rock, who himself rose to the bench in 1991 by defeating incumbent John Earl, said in response to Almand's criticism, “I don't know what he's talking about. I don't think he's been before this court for a couple of years. Not only am I up to doing the job, I enjoy it.” Kilgore, known for his decision in the Lake View case, which found the state's public school system unconstitutional, lost a race for state Supreme Court in 2004.

Jonathan Lane, a criminal defense lawyer in Little Rock, said that he is “99 percent sure” that he will mount a challenge to Circuit Judge Mary McGowan. McGowan hears civil, domestic, and probate cases and operates a drug court aimed at diverting offenders to rehabilitation. Lane said he will emphasize the need to assess different penalties to different drug offenders. “I don't think when you apply the same treatment to all individuals you get optimal results,” he said.

Two other circuit court judgeships will be open in 2008. Gruber's challenge to Griffen means that she will vacate her juvenile judgeship. Three candidates — Melinda Gilbert, Cathi Compton and Jewel Harper, all in private practice — will vie for it. Compton's firm is in Little Rock; Gilbert and Harper are both in North Little Rock.

Compton, who handles personal injury, employment discrimination and criminal defense, said her work on death penalty cases is one of her main reasons for running. “Had there been intervention at the juvenile level, things could have been different,” she said. Harper said that the juvenile judge could be instrumental in improving child services. She cited Families in Need of Services (FINS) as an example of a program through which the juvenile court has actively sought out federal assistance. Gilbert said she would solicit input from all parties involved in juvenile management — including attorneys, parents, court staff, and the Department of Human Services — in order to improve the court's time management.



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