Favorite

Partisan justice 

I had a nice visit with Arkansas Court of Appeals Judge Rhonda Wood last week.

She and I had engaged earlier in a little Twitter jousting over some of her political activities.

Wood had mentioned on both Twitter and Facebook her enthusiastic attendance at two Republican Party fund-raising events, including a speech by gubernatorial candidate Asa Hutchinson, as well as a speech at the University of Arkansas by Wisconsin's Republican governor, Scott Walker.

I was interested for several reasons.

For one thing, Wood was just elected to the Court of Appeals, but the public appearances lent credence to the reports that she was planning a race for an open seat on the Arkansas Supreme Court. Judges can't formally begin campaigns until one year before the May 21, 2014 election, but they can certainly begin pressing the flesh.

For another thing, there was the matter of her attendance at Republican-flavored events. In her first race for Court of Appeals in 2010, Wood relied on robocalling by former Gov. Mike Huckabee to target voters. His message noted she'd been recommended for the bench by a Republican Party committee. Arkansas judicial elections switched from partisan to nonpartisan in 2000. Judicial ethics rules prohibit judicial candidates from claiming a connection to a political party (which Wood didn't explicitly do).

Wood, a former staff member for Huckabee, would be the last to claim anyone brings perfect neutrality to the bench. And, much as I have come to believe "merit selection" is the best course for filling judgeships, I also know that an appointment process inevitably will have political overtones, too.

Wood insists her record in Faulkner County illustrates fairness in handling cases involving political party figures. She says her recent attendance at Republican activities was mostly happenstance — that she'd be happy to attend Democratic Party events, too. (Noted in passing: She spoke of the "Democrat" Party, a subtle Republican putdown long used by GOP partisans.) She agrees that judicial engagement in social media can be problematic, but that she avoids statements on issues or beliefs. She defended her attendance at the Scott Walker event on the ground that she's a native of Wisconsin.

Wood lamented — as did several of her Republican legislative admirers, such as Sen. Michael Lamoureux — that the first round of judicial elections are held the same day as political party primaries, when partisan coloration is rampant. Better to have the election in November, they think.

Maybe it's all innocent. But a partisan-seasoned dog whistle can be a plus, particularly if you believe Arkansas is strongly trending Republican. It is the same sort of dog whistle heard in Wood's pronouncement that she is a "conservative" judge. Voters inevitably read that label as politically conservative, as opposed to, say, judicially conservative. A real judicial conservative is respectful of precedent (Roe v. Wade, for example; or the decades-long precedent, overturned not long ago by nominal "conservatives," that the 2nd Amendment should be read in context of the need for a militia).

I agree with Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen, a Democratic partisan who speaks more than a judge should on matters of public controversy, that he, Wood and any judge enjoy nearly unbridled 1st Amendment protection from government punishment for speaking their minds, even exhibiting friendliness toward a political party. But just because you can speak freely, doesn't mean you should.

Republicans who lobbied in 2000 for nonpartisan judges (to deprive the Democratic Party of the filing fees that then flowed overwhelming in that direction), plus nonpartisan prosecutors (passed this session) and even nonpartisan sheriffs (failed this year) in the name of a pure justice system, should shut their hypocritical pieholes if they also approve of partisan-tinged politicking by one of their own.

Favorite

From the ArkTimes store

Speaking of...

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

More by Max Brantley

People who saved…

Readers also liked…

  • Double-talk

    A couple of instances of doublespeak cropped up in Little Rock over the weekend.
    • Jun 29, 2017
  • Along the civil rights trail

    A convergence of events in recent days signaled again how far we have come and how far we have yet to go in civil rights.
    • Jan 18, 2018
  • The Oval outhouse

    One thing all Americans finally can agree upon is that public discourse has coarsened irretrievably in the era of Donald Trump and largely at his instance.
    • Jan 18, 2018

Most Shared

  • In the margins

    A rediscovered violin concerto brings an oft-forgotten composer into the limelight.
  • Donald Trump is historically unpopular — and not necessarily where you think

    My colleagues John Ray and Jesse Bacon and I estimate, in the first analysis of its kind for the 2018 election season, that the president's waning popularity isn't limited to coastal cities and states. The erosion of his electoral coalition has spread to The Natural State, extending far beyond the college towns and urban centers that voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. From El Dorado to Sherwood, Fayetteville to Hot Springs, the president's approval rating is waning.
  • Arkansans join House vote to gut Americans with Disabilities Act

    Despite fierce protests from disabled people, the U.S. House voted today, mostly on party lines, to make it harder to sue businesses for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act. Of course Arkansas congressmen were on the wrong side.

Latest in Max Brantley

  • Love, Ark Blog

    Things you might have missed if you don't read the Arkansas Blog.
    • Feb 15, 2018
  • Police problems

    Little Rock Police Chief Kenton Buckner's surprise emergence as a candidate for a higher-paying job in a smaller city (Charleston, S.C.) is a commentary on the fraught relationship of police with the Little Rock community and a city government structure in need of change.
    • Feb 8, 2018
  • Lock him up

    To no one's surprise, Republican state Sen. Jake Files of Fort Smith entered a negotiated guilty plea Monday in federal court to bank and wire fraud and money laundering charges.
    • Feb 1, 2018
  • More »

Event Calendar

« »

February

S M T W T F S
  1 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  

Most Viewed

  • Donald Trump is historically unpopular — and not necessarily where you think

    My colleagues John Ray and Jesse Bacon and I estimate, in the first analysis of its kind for the 2018 election season, that the president's waning popularity isn't limited to coastal cities and states. The erosion of his electoral coalition has spread to The Natural State, extending far beyond the college towns and urban centers that voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. From El Dorado to Sherwood, Fayetteville to Hot Springs, the president's approval rating is waning.

Most Recent Comments

  • Re: Out of control

    • And Olphart - hey, That is a witty reply - good for you!

    • on February 17, 2018
  • Re: Out of control

    • Oh for god's sake - read the play - just read the play before going…

    • on February 16, 2018
  • Re: Out of control

    • Aloysius, Not even a large man with a bodyguard detail acting in a way intended…

    • on February 16, 2018
 

© 2018 Arkansas Times | 201 East Markham, Suite 200, Little Rock, AR 72201
Powered by Foundation