Judicial politics: It's time 

The legislature will discuss judicial elections this year.

The major questions are related:

Should we elect judges at all?

If judges are to be elected, shouldn't we have more information about who pays to influence the outcomes?

The questions became high-profile thanks to two Arkansas Supreme Court races this year. Circuit Judge Dan Kemp defeated Associate Justice Courtney Goodson to fill the vacant chief justice seat in a campaign marked by extraordinary spending by Goodson herself (she loaned her campaign $500,000) and by a shadowy private group that spent hundreds of thousands on TV to trash Goodson. In the other race, another shadowy group with unidentified contributions ran dishonest TV ads against Clark Mason, defeated by former Republican state Sen. Shawn Womack in a race for a vacant associate justice seat.

Gov. Hutchinson is among those said to be open to moving to appointment of appellate judges (the governor would be in control) and also to do something about "dark money" in judicial races.

Now comes his nephew, Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson (R-Little Rock), to confirm that the Judiciary Committee he chairs has tentatively scheduled a meeting March 31 on both election of judges and campaign financing. The date isn't firm. It might occur later in the spring.

The hearings won't be an amen corner for reform. Some influential people would like to send a constitutional amendment to voters for appointment, rather than election of appellate judges. A quirk in the Constitution allows this to be referred to the ballot as early as this coming November. Some people prefer election. Funny how a Republican governor has also unsettled some past supporters of appointment. Some favor appointment, but they fear — with some reason — that the legislature might simply put an open-ended enabling amendment on the ballot, with appointment details left to the legislature. It's a recipe for disaster. See how the legislature toyed with and neutered a so-called ethics amendment approved by voters.

Sen. Hutchinson insists he won't go along with anything less than a specific proposal for voters. But the specifics of that remain unclear for now. For his part, he wants no committee to vet potential appointees for a governor. He favors giving the governor total control, subject to legislative confirmation, like the federal judicial system. He also favors a single 12-year term for judges. There'd be no additional terms and no retention elections at which voters could toss out a judge. To have retention elections would only bring elections and special interest money back into play, he says.

Rep. Clarke Tucker will be on hand with his legislation — quashed by Republicans in 2015 — to require disclosure of sources of money for electioneering ads. As it now stands, ads that lack specific advocacy words (vote FOR or AGAINST, for example) are free from required disclosure of finances. Court precedent says more transparency is possible, though outlawing independent expenditures probably isn't. Those who like secret financing schemes — particularly business interests — will fight to keep secrecy. They'll try to pretend they have a First Amendment right to secrecy. They do not. Even a Scalia court has made that clear.

We are also likely to hear a proposal for public financing of judicial elections, perhaps funded by an additional fee on lawyers. Money could be raised privately, under this idea, if outside money surfaced in a race. To me, that sounds like a more complicated disease, not a cure. A judge is expected to make this proposal, in hopes of saving elections over appointments.

Arkansas has rarely had groundswells for better government. Though the timing seems better for a shot at judicial improvements this year, the competing interests could easily stymie all but continuation of the status quo. Status quo is better; however, than a Chamber of Commerce judicial branch that slams the courthouse doors shut to all but a favored few.



Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

More by Max Brantley

  • Thursday's open line and the daily video

    Here's the open line and the daily video.
    • Oct 27, 2016
  • UPDATE: Ted Suhl gets seven years, $200,000 fine for bribery

    Ted Suhl was sentenced this morning by federal Judge Billy Roy Wilson on four counts of attempting to bribe a state official to help his mental health business supported by Medicaid money. He received 84 months and a $200,000 fine and is to report to prison in early January. He will appeal.
    • Oct 27, 2016
  • Question raised on Dallas Cowboy gift to NLR cops

    Blogger Russ Racop raises an interesting question, as he sometimes does, about Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones' gift of free tickets for North Little Rock cops to attend a Dallas Cowboy football game.
    • Oct 27, 2016
  • More »

Readers also liked…

  • The education legislature

    Republican political control in Arkansas means many things: lots of gun bills, lots of anti-abortion bills, lots of efforts to make religious belief law, such as discrimination against gay people.
    • Mar 10, 2015
  • Supremely discredited

    Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Rhonda Wood and her allies continue to discredit the state's highest court.
    • Jul 30, 2015
  • Hutchinson pulls Faubus move

    I don't know what if anything might arise or be planned in the future relative to Gov. Asa Hutchinson's order to end Medicaid reimbursement for medical services (not abortion) provided by Planned Parenthood in Arkansas.
    • Aug 20, 2015

Most Shared

  • Issue 3: blank check

    Who could object to a constitutional amendment "concerning job creation, job expansion and economic development," which is the condensed title for Issue 3 for Arkansas voters on Nov. 8?
  • Little Rock police kill man downtown

    Little Rock police responding to a disturbance call near Eighth and Sherman Streets about 12:40 a.m. killed a man with a long gun, Police Chief Kenton Buckner said in an early morning meeting with reporters.
  • From the mind of Sol LeWitt: Crystal Bridges 'Loopy Doopy': A correction

    Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art is installing Sol Lewitt's 70-foot eye-crosser "Wall Drawing 880: Loopy Doopy," waves of complementary orange and green, on the outside of the Twentieth Century Gallery bridge. You can glimpse painters working on it from Eleven, the museum's restaurant, museum spokeswoman Beth Bobbitt said
  • Ted Suhl loses another bid for new trial; faces stiff sentencing recommendation

    Ted Suhl, the former operator of residential and out-patient mental health services, has lost a second bid to get a new trial on his conviction for paying bribes to influence state Human Services Department policies. Set for sentencing Thursday, Suhl faces a government request for a sentence up to almost 20 years. He argues for no more than 33 months.
  • Football and foster kids

    It took a football stadium to lay bare Republican budget hypocrisy in Arkansas.

Latest in Max Brantley

  • Football and foster kids

    It took a football stadium to lay bare Republican budget hypocrisy in Arkansas.
    • Oct 27, 2016
  • Trumped in Arkansas

    After two solid debates and the release of a video and corroborating testimony that further confirmed the misogyny of Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton is favored to win the presidential election Nov. 8
    • Oct 20, 2016
  • So many provocations...

    Another bad week demands a Worst Of listing.
    • Oct 6, 2016
  • More »

Visit Arkansas

Jodi Morris's lifelong ties to the National Park Service

Jodi Morris's lifelong ties to the National Park Service

"History is always happening" at Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site

Event Calendar

« »


2 3 4 5 6 7 8
9 10 11 12 13 14 15
16 17 18 19 20 21 22
23 24 25 26 27 28 29
30 31  

Most Viewed

  • The politics of opportunity

    Are you sick of the election yet? One thing that seems certain is that our politics remain as hyperpartisan and dysfunctional as ever. I may be naive, but I think Arkansas has an opportunity to help lead the country back toward pragmatic progress on the issues that will make our families and communities stronger.
  • The end is near

    Practically speaking, it doesn't really matter if Donald Trump accepts the results of the November election.

Most Recent Comments

  • Re: The politics of opportunity

    • Maybe we need to revive a grassroots movement to have (1) nonpartisan redistricting (2)Top two…

    • on October 27, 2016
  • Re: The politics of opportunity

    • I don't see the collective will to accomplish these things, either within or out of…

    • on October 27, 2016
  • Re: The end is near

    • The Reps wanted another clueless Pres like baby Bush who would just wear the costume,…

    • on October 27, 2016

© 2016 Arkansas Times | 201 East Markham, Suite 200, Little Rock, AR 72201
Powered by Foundation