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Reforming judicial elections in Arkansas 

Task force at work.

The prospect of big, greedy corporations and bigoted, right-wing religionists seizing control of the state courts is plenty scary, like finding Karl Rove and Donald Wildmon on your doorstep. (Does anybody sell Rove and Wildmon masks for Halloween? People would hand over their daughters to avoid tricks from those two.) Add the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to the cause, and you have a true Axis of Evil.

It could happen in Arkansas, the way it's happened elsewhere. Rove, the Republican Party strategist and lead handler of George Bush, helped business interests unseat a Democratic chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court who was believed soft on plaintiffs. He's done similar work in his home state of Texas.

Over the last decade, the Chamber of Commerce has poured millions of dollars into state Supreme Court races around the country, seeking — usually successfully — to get rid of justices who've displeased corporations by ruling against them in lawsuits.

Right-wing religionists got everybody's attention last year, when they removed three Iowa Supreme Court justices who'd voted to legalize same-sex marriage. The vote by the seven court justices was unanimous, but only three of them were on the ballot in 2010. Presumably, the fundamentalist faction will go after others in 2012, like sharks coming back for another bite.

In Arkansas, a "tort reform" law, making it more difficult for people to win lawsuits against corporations, was approved by the legislature a few years back. Since then, some of the law has been struck down by the Arkansas Supreme Court as unconstitutional. Similar rulings in other states have resulted in business interests backing "tort reform" candidates against sitting justices in bitter and expensive elections.

The Arkansas Supreme Court last year invalidated an initiated act that prohibited unmarried, cohabiting couples from adopting or fostering children. Act 1 was aimed primarily at same-sex couples, who cannot legally marry in Arkansas. It was backed by the Arkansas Family Council, a fundamentalist group, and approved by voters in 2008. After the Supreme Court knocked the law down, Family Council President Jerry Cox said the decision was the worst the Court had ever made. The decision by the seven-member court was unanimous. None will be removed for that vote in 2012, though. Only one Supreme Court seat will be on the ballot next year, and the incumbent, Associate Justice Jim Gunter, is not seeking re-election.

Associate Justice Robert Brown wrote the Act 1 decision, saying the act violated fundamental privacy rights implicit in the Arkansas Constitution. Angry voters won't get another shot at him. His term doesn't expire until 2014, but he's announced he'll retire at the end of 2012 (after the elections). He couldn't run again even if he wanted to, because of age limits on judicial candidates.

Nonetheless, Brown is concerned about what he's called "toxic judicial elections," of the sort that have occurred elsewhere and could occur here. He's the chairman of a state task force looking for ways to prevent their occurrence. The Task Force is a creation of the Arkansas Bar Association and the Judicial Council, which is an organization of the state's judges.

In a law-review article, Brown has noted that "judicial campaigns for the supreme court in Alabama in 2008 cost a total of $5.3 million. They cost $9.3 million in Illinois in 2004. A 2008 election for the high court in Wisconsin cost approximately $6 million, with $4.8 million contributed by special interest groups and $1.2 million raised on behalf of the candidates themselves. In Michigan, the price tag for chief justice in 2008 exceeded $7.5 million." Last year in Arkansas, the two Supreme Court races on the ballot cost a total of $1.8 million, big money by Arkansas standards, but not reflective of the huge contributions from special-interest groups that have been made in other states.

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