Columns » Max Brantley

In judgment: court elections

Arkansas voters filled two seats on the Arkansas Supreme Court last week in an exercise that again made the case against election of judges.

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Arkansas Justice Building.
  • Arkansas Justice Building.

Arkansas voters filled two seats on the Arkansas Supreme Court last week in an exercise that again made the case against election of judges.

Circuit Judge Dan Kemp defeated Associate Justice Courtney Goodson in the race to fill the open chief justice seat. Circuit Judge Shawn Womack defeated Clark Mason in the race to fill the seat vacated by retiring Justice Paul Danielson.

What's not to like? First: At least $1.6 million (and certainly a great deal more because this figure reflects only TV ad purchases) was spent in these two races, the majority by shadowy groups attacking either Goodson or Mason.

Kemp did a marginally better job than Womack in decrying the spending of dark money, though he couldn't help but note that at least some of the spending against Goodson accurately linked her to embarrassing facts provided by public financial and campaign filings. Goodson's husband, John, has been a major spender along with class-action lawyer friends to Supreme Court races. His gifts and ties to others making lavish personal gifts to Goodson further contributed to a damaging portrait of Goodson. Mason was smeared in fact-deficient ads by a Republican group as, well, a liberal trial lawyer and Obama lover.

Kemp's appearances weren't pristine. His Republican campaign consultants — with strong ties to the business lobby working to strip the court of justices friendly to damage lawsuits — sent a message, along with his campaign contributors, about the kind of judge many hope him to be. He also made the poor decision (if not a technical ethics code violation) of reaching out to a prominent banker in his hometown for political support the very day he signed off on the favorable disposition of a criminal case against the banker's child. It was unseemly.

The Womack race was more disheartening, particularly because Womack's resume was full of unflattering material had only dark money materialized to use it. As a Republican senator, he supported making homosexual acts a felony and preventing gay people from adopting children, much less marrying. He carried the anti-damage suit agenda of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce. The Democrat-Gazette took Womack at his word that he was no longer a political creature, even as he RAN FOR OFFICE by making the rounds of Republican Party events and using a political consultant deeply identified with the Republican Party. The D-G editorialists, no doubt on account of Womack's pro-business posture, also chose to ignore his politicking for a huge judicial pay raise on the specious ground that Arkansas's already well-paid judges had a constitutional right to more money (unless, presumably, they happen to be gay). He was also on record in a misspelled letter as saying he was unqualified to hear a criminal case. Not a politician? He has been the judicial branch's chief lobbyist before the majority Republican legislature.

Womack ran for a nonpartisan office by emphasizing Republican ties, a gimmick also used before by Justice Rhonda Wood (Goodson and Kemp, too, touted GOP pals). The irony — or hypocrisy — is that the Republican Party favored the end of partisan elections back when most candidates were Democrats and the filing fees helped the Democratic Party. Today, with the state in control of Republicans, they WANT a partisan Supreme Court. Gov. Hutchinson, a Republican, is now talking about ending dark money in court races by allowing gubernatorial appointment. Of course he'd like to appoint them all.

Scoreboard: Beginning in 2017, there won't be a single member of the Arkansas Supreme Court who doesn't owe a debt of thanks to the corporate lobby, nursing homes, the Republican Party or class-action lawyers for either paying for their campaign directly or providing immense sums from unidentified sources to tear down their opponents. Every one of the not-so-magnificent seven — Rhonda Wood, Karen Baker, Jo Hart, Dan Kemp, Shawn Womack, Robin Wynne, Courtney Goodson. Appearances DO count.

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