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By their words ye shall know them 

A revealing look into the workings of the Arkansas Supreme Court

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Everybody's entitled to an opinion. But members of the Arkansas Supreme Court are more entitled than most.

Put another way: their professional opinions affect us more than just about anyone else's. As the final arbitrator of legal issues in the state, the high court's seven members wield unparalleled influence. They sit atop the third branch of government, interpreting the law and often making it through the power of their opinions.

Those opinions shape and refine the laws enacted by the legislature. But, while the legislature is followed closely by the media while it's in session, the high court works quietly year in and year out, almost entirely outside media notice.

Each year, the Arkansas Supreme Court rules on more than 200 cases that establish precedent and thereby make law. And any of their rulings may, at one time or another, affect you.

Workers' rights? Real estate? Medical insurance? Divorce? Child custody? Wills? Banking? Contracts? When police can — and cannot — search your house? Questions touching on all these and more are routinely ruled on by the court.

Yet only a fraction of its decisions ever get reported by the mainstream media. And, unlike other elected officials, the black-robed justices of the Supreme Court labor in relative anonymity. We elect them. But we make it hard to know them.

When they campaign, they don't discuss philosophy or their opinions on the law, lest they appear to have prejudged anything. They no longer even campaign by party.

Once on the bench, they're equally constrained — at least, so far as the public goes. You'd be more likely to elicit an off-the-cuff opinion on any aspect of the law from any man or woman on the street than from any justice of the state Supreme Court.

Finally, when their rulings are reported, it's the collective decision that makes headlines — if the decision's reported at all. The positions of individual justices often are not even noted.

Lawyers, of course, follow the court. But, knowing that any case may eventually arrive there, few are so confident — or rash — as to express their opinions of the justices in public.

So how can voters get to know these powerful, but obscure, officials?

Judges traditionally run on their records. But how many of us could say anything meaningful about the "record" of even one of this state's justices?

Until recently, voters for the court have been handicapped. But now that situation may be reversed. That's because what the media have not been providing voters can now get for themselves.

True, the justices don't expound in sound bites. And they don't welcome cameras where they work. But, more than anyone else in government, they do give us their opinions. And, to an extent unmatched in politics, that makes them knowable.

On hundreds of issues each year, the justices of the Arkansas Supreme Court (and Court of Appeals) spell out where they stand. Now that their opinions are available on-line, the court and its members can be judged more personally and more directly than was easily done before.

Court-watching can now assume its proper place as one of the great Arkansas political pastimes. And the new Supreme Court term has just begun.

If you want a chance to peer more deeply than ever before into the legal life of this state... If you're curious about the characters of the justices on the bench... If you'd like to see how justices agree and disagree... Or to watch life-and-death dramas unfold... Go to: http://courts.state.ar.us/opinions/opmain.htm.. And revisit the site once a week.

The following glimpses from last term will help you get acquainted. Some of the observations are subjective, but that's the point. For better or worse, we are all entitled to our opinions...

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