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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.

Circuit Judge John Langston, who hears criminal cases, is retiring. So far there are two committed candidates for his post: Tom Carpenter, who is Little Rock city attorney, and Herb Wright, who is the Wrightsville district judge. (The Wrightsville district judgeship, a part-time position, will be up for grabs. Saline County Deputy Prosecutor Chris Walton has declared for the seat.)

A possible third entrant is Judge Alice Lightle, appointed by Gov. Mike Beebe to temporarily fill a vacancy as Little Rock environmental court judge. Judicial rules bar an appointed judge from running for the seat. Lightle said she is also considering a run for other courts.

Lightle's Little Rock seat, which is responsible for city code enforcement and small claims, looks to be the most hotly contested. Five candidates may run. The most controversial is Bill Watt, who in 1996 was barred from serving as an Arkansas judge by the state Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission as a result of multiple complaints about his conduct as judge and for actions he detailed as an immunized witness in the Whitewater prosecutions. The commission restored his right to serve in 2004, the only time it has ever reversed a lifetime ban.

Watt said he will wait to see what the election field looks like before he decides whether to run. Asked if his disciplinary history might prove an obstacle, Watt said that it wouldn't, provided that people focus on his ideas for the environmental court. The court should be a lever for crime enforcement, according to a memo Watt has been circulating.

Jerry Larkowski, a lawyer with a private Little Rock practice, is another potential entrant. “My name is still in there, let's leave it at that,” said Larkowski. He said he'll make his final decision by the end of the year.

Three who are definitely in are Slocum Pickell, Gary Sullivan, and Mark Leverett, all in private practice in Little Rock. Sullivan said he will emphasize cooperation with other district judges in sharing the docket. One of Pickell's primary goals is to make sure cases are heard in a timely fashion. He said that he will add days to hear cases and encourage alternative dispute resolution before litigation. Leverett said that he will focus on working with neighborhood associations and code enforcement officers.

In a second district court race, veteran criminal court Judge Lee Munson of Little Rock, a former prosecutor and chancery judge, will face a challenge from Hugh Finkelstein, who oversees general criminal cases in the Pulaski County prosecuting attorney's office. Finkelstein wants to implement video arraignment in order to ease logistical burdens on the court. He said he would use more drug screens and more frequent drug treatment for offenders.

Judicial elections are nonpartisan, though held May 20, the party primary day. Candidates who qualify by circulating petitions must file by Jan. 31. Those who pay a filing fee — $3,930 at the district court level, $5,040 for circuit court and $6,500 for court of appeals — must file by March 10. Runoffs, if necessary, will be Nov. 4. Appeals court terms are for eight years and carry an annual salary of $130,000. Circuit judges sit for six years and make $126,000 a year. A district court term lasts four years and pays $131,017. Part-time seats pay considerably less: the salary for the Wrightsville district judge is $16,500.

A number of other local judgeships are on the ballot in 2008, but so far incumbents haven't drawn announced opposition.

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