It's an unusual election year when the most interesting races in the primaries are for Supreme Court seats.
A race for chief justice has been enlivened by the candidacy of Judge Wendell Griffen, who has been involved in more controversy than the average Court of Appeals judge gets into; who has adopted the uncommon tactic - for a judicial race - of calling for a debate with his opponent, and who is an unusual color for a Supreme Court candidate in Arkansas: black.
A race for another Supreme Court seat includes the trial judge, Collins Kilgore, who declared the Arkansas public school system unconstitutional. He too has attained abnormally high visibility for a Supreme Court candidate. Usually, nobody but the lawyers knows who these people are.
Griffen, 51, of Little Rock, is a member of the state's second-highest appellate court. Hannah, 59, of Searcy, is already a member of the highest court, but wants to move up to the position of chief justice, the state's highest-ranking judicial officer. In addition to deciding appeals, the chief justice has administrative duties that the other justices don't.
In 2002, Griffen was admonished by the state Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission after he criticized the University of Arkansas, his alma mater, for firing basketball coach Nolan Richardson, who is black, and after he told black legislators they should withhold support from the university for what he said was lack of progress in hiring and promoting black administrators and faculty. Last year, the Supreme Court overturned the commission action in a 4-3 decision, saying that the judicial canon of ethics cited by the commission was so vague as to intrude on free speech. Hannah was one of the three dissenters.
More recently, Griffen's name has shown up as a possible witness in the trial of Richardson's discrimination lawsuit against the university. Richardson says he was fired because he's black. Griffen said in a deposition made public that Richardson was fired for being an uppity black, and said Richardson shouldn't be penalized for calling critics "redneck SOBs."
Such comments have led some white people to think of Griffen as a loud-mouthed firebrand. In interviews, and when speaking to groups of supporters, he sounds amiable and reasonable even if one doesn't agree with his positions. In those situtations, one can see how he became the first black person to be a partner at a major Arkansas law firm. He's also an ordained minister.
Though calling for a debate, as underdogs in non-judicial political races often do, Griffen concedes that Supreme Court candidates shouldn't debate issues that might come before the court. But he says he and Hannah could debate administration-of-justice issues, such as electronic filing of appeals, which is not now allowed in Arkansas.
Hannah is not keen on debating - favorites in political races usually aren't - saying there's not much that judicial candidates can debate about, that he and Griffen have already discussed things like electronic filing during several joint appearances, and that he has difficulty finding time in his schedule for the sort of full-fledged television debate that Griffen wants.
If Hannah seems rather colorless next to Griffen, he also seems solid. In his campaign appearances, he confidently urges voters to check with their lawyers, the judges they know, people who might have had dealings with him in court. It's likely he'll get more votes from the legal establishment than will Griffen, who needs to run well among non-lawyers if he expects to win.
Hannah was a chancery judge for 22 years before he was elected to the Supreme Court in 2000. Besides being in private practice for 11 years, he's been a city attorney, a deputy prosecuting attorney, a juvenile judge and a member of the state Pardons and Paroles Board. He's a past president of the Judicial Council, which represents all the judges in the state. He was a legislative assistant to Gov. Dale Bumpers in the early 1970s. He has the endorsement of the AFL-CIO.
Both Griffen and Hannah are in the middle of eight-year terms, so the loser of the race will keep the job he already has. If Griffen wins, Gov. Huckabee will appoint a new Court of Appeals judge to serve until the next election in 2006. If Hannah wins, the governor will appoint a new Supreme Court justice to fill Hannah's old seat.
Three circuit judges are seeking Supreme Court Position 4, which Justice Ray Thornton is vacating. None of the three has proposed a debate.
Judge Paul Danielson, 58, of Booneville says he brings "a more diverse background than either of my opponents." He was in private practice for 17 years. As a judge, he has always heard both criminal and civil cases. He's also been a deputy prosecuting attorney. "I have a long background in criminal justice. I think most of the judges on the Supreme Court now came from private practice or were chancellors. [Chancery judges do not hear criminal cases.] I was a law clerk for Associate Justice Frank Holt [now deceased] right out of law school, so I know what the work is like and I know I like to do that kind of work. I was a city attorney at Booneville. I taught in the law school at Fayetteville." He notes that his district is larger geographically (because it's more rural) than his opponents'. "Mine is a four-county [Conway, Logan, Scott and Yell], six-courthouse district. I think that gives me a little different perspective."
Like his opponents, Danielson isn't talking about issues that might come before the Supreme Court, but his web site has a couple of letters on it that could give a clue to his thinking - except that the letters seem to paint differing pictures. One is from a Republican former state senator, Bill Walters of Greenwood, a lawyer. "In recent years, the Arkansas Supreme Court has become more and more involved in legislating our lives and the direction of our state," Walters writes. "Many people are concerned that the Supreme Court is assuming liberal jurisdiction over matters that should be left to the other branches of government. … It is important to all of us to have good, fair, and conservative judges on our Supreme Court and I have the utmost confidence that Judge Danielson will be a tremendous asset …"
The other letter is addressed to "Fellow Trial Lawyers" and is signed by Allen Gordon of Morrilton, Bart Virden of Morrilton and Chip Welch of Little Rock. Welch is the attorney for a group that has filed suit with the Supreme Court challenging the constitutionality of Arkansas's "tort reform" law. Approved by the legislature last year (and generally supported by people who call themselves "conservative"), the law sets limits on jury awards to plaintiffs and otherwise makes it harder for plaintiffs to prevail.
"We have a unique opportunity to play a hand in helping preserve the jury trial by placing a 'Lawyer's Judge' on the Arkansas Supreme Court," the letter says. "Circuit Judge Paul Danielson fervently believes in the right to trial by jury. … This is a unique opportunity for you as a trial lawyer to help your clients get a fair deal. … Please give this matter careful consideration and for the sake of the jury trial, send your contribution today."
Judge Jim Gunter, 61, of Hope, has been a judge the longest of the three - 21 years as a circuit and chancery judge. Naturally, he stresses that. "Experience is important for filling this position," he said. He was prosecuting attorney for six years before he was elected judge, and in private practice for 10 years before that. He's a businessman, too. He said that throughout his legal career, he's also managed a variety of business interests in timber, real estate and farming. His district encompasses Hempstead and Nevada Counties. The Arkansas AFL-CIO made a joint endorsement in the Position 4 race - Gunter and Judge Collins Kilgore of Little Rock.
Kilgore, 62, is by far the best-known of the three. Because Pulaski County has the most population and the most media, Pulaski County judges usually acquire more name recognition than those in other parts of the state, and Kilgore got a huge additional boost from being a major player in the biggest story of the day. He presided in a case challenging the state's system of public education, and he ruled that the system was indeed unconstitutional and inequitable. The Supreme Court upheld the decision and the legislature met in special session to raise taxes, require some schools to consolidate and otherwise try to comply with the ruling. The consolidation requirement is highly unpopular in rural areas of the state, so it's possible Kilgore's decision will hurt him there.
Kilgore said that as a judge in Pulaski County, where many lawsuits of statewide interest are filed, he's handled larger and more complex cases than judges elsewhere. Kilgore serves in Pulaski and Perry counties. He was first elected in 1991, and was in private practice for a dozen years before then.