Columns » Max Brantley

Judges take center stage

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Sure, 19 Republican and Democrats are on the Arkansas presidential primary ballot March 1. And some voters can participate in Republican bloodletting between ultra- and ultra-ultra-conservative legislative candidates over Obamacare.

But the real action will be the nonpartisan judicial races, particularly two contests for the Arkansas Supreme Court.

Associate Justice Courtney Goodson will face Circuit Judge Dan Kemp of Mountain View in a race for chief justice. It's a position that once had administrative authority over the court, but the power has been diminished by rump majority caucuses of the seven-member court. Now-retired Chief Justice Jim Hannah was too nice for his own good.

Goodson was Courtney Henry when she got elected to the Court of Appeals on scant law clerk experience. Her Democratically connected in-laws were critical in her reach for a seat on the Supreme Court. Shortly after her election, she shucked her husband. She remarried to a powerful lawyer, John Goodson, who'd gifted her with mounds of expensive purses. She'd later disclose that she and hubby enjoyed a $50,000 Mediterranean cruise on a private Tyson yacht, courtesy of a well-connected lawyer friend.

Goodson enjoyed business support her first go-round and still numbers the likes of Entergy lobbyist Tom Kennedy in her posse. It helps that John Goodson, a UA trustee, is adept at cultivating friends of all sorts, including a number who've piled big sums into the campaign treasuries of every elected member of the Arkansas Supreme Court.

Goodson is distributing a photo with her Supreme Court colleagues on Facebook. The subliminal message: They support her. An ethics complaint on this will go nowhere, though it fits a pattern. Goodson used endorsement by photo association in her first Supreme Court race, including pictures of a judicial colleague and prominent Democrat who demanded that their photos be removed. Her campaign operatives are also mailing that current Supreme Court photo around, further evidence that its use isn't as innocent as it appears.

Goodson, judging by all the elected Republicans she's posing with, has remade herself. Gone are her liberal Democratic in-laws. Up front now are a host of Republican legislators, including people like the anti-gay Republican Sen. Bart Hester, who's trying to make people believe Kemp, a conservative Church of Christ elder, is some kind of gay activist. Evidence? He met with some lawyers at a house a few blocks from me in Little Rock's Hillcrest, well known as a neighborhood soft on the queers.

Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce money will support Kemp. He'll have campaign advice from a Republican consulting firm. He offers a record for honesty and consistency, if not a progressive streak. Business supported Goodson once and she went against it on some big tort cases. She went both for and against same-sex marriage in internal court deliberations, before the court finally punted.

Speaking of sexual equality: A declared proponent of discrimination against gay people, Circuit Judge Shawn Womack of Mountain Home, wound up with an opponent, Clark Mason of Little Rock, in the final 15 minutes of filing for the other open Supreme Court seat. This being Arkansas, Womack, a former Republican senator, probably is happy for me to quote his record in support of recriminalizing homosexuality, of opposing adoption by gay people and opposing same-sex marriage. Worse than his animus toward gay people, however, is his uncharitable outlook toward injured people. He was a legislative foot soldier for the chamber of commerce in its campaign to limit — if not eliminate — damage lawsuits and punitive damages. The chamber crowd will spend heavily to put him on the court. Clark Mason is a successful trial lawyer. He took pains to say he's represented major corporations, too, but his association with an organization that advocates better nursing home care will win him no support from the chamber of commerce or from nursing home magnate Michael Morton, who underwrote so many judicial races in 2014.

The odds are strong that secretive dark money groups will pour money into both sides of these races, just as a smear group helped the chamber buy current Justice Robin Wynne's seat for him in 2014. For example: They'll likely find a probationer from Dan Kemp's nearly three decades as a (prosecution friendly) criminal court judge who returned to crime. They'll find some way to pervert Clark Mason's representation of those injured by corporate negligence. Shawn Womack's admission (in a grammatically challenged recusal letter) that he wasn't qualified to try criminal cases ought to make a good 30-second ad. Courtney Goodson? Dubious ethics? A husband deeply entangled in legal matters? Actually being on the right side of a controversial case (same-sex marriage) but scheming to make sure the decision was never delivered gives both sides ammo.

If a couple of million gets spent in anonymously financed ads of dubious fairness, maybe someone will again talk about appointing judges.

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