NATIONAL NEWS

2 races, including crowded chief justice campaign, could push Arkansas court further to the right

Mar 1, 2024, 9:11 PM | Updated: Mar 2, 2024, 2:44 pm

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Two races for the Arkansas Supreme Court, including a crowded chief justice campaign, could push a court that’s been targeted by outside conservative groups even further to the right.

The nonpartisan elections on Tuesday for chief justice and another seat could have major implications on cases before the court or likely to go before it over the next year, including abortion rights and an ongoing fight over control of the state’s prison system.

Three of the court’s sitting justices — Karen Baker, Barbara Webb and Rhonda Wood — are running against former state Rep. Jay Martin for chief justice. The four are running to succeed current Chief Justice Dan Kemp, who is not seeking reelection. If none of the four win a majority of votes, the top two advance to a runoff in the November election.

Justice Courtney Hudson is running against Circuit Judge Carlton Jones for the seat currently held by Cody Hiland, who Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders appointed. Hiland, a former federal prosecutor and state GOP chairman, was appointed to the court following Justice Robin Wynne’s death.

Both court races could expand Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ influence on the court, months after she handed the court a conservative majority.

“I know it will have the same effect on our state as it has had on our country,” Sanders said when appointing Hiland. The Republican governor has not endorsed candidates in either race on Tuesday’s ballot.

The court could play a major role in abortion rights, with a campaign underway to put on the November ballot a measure that would scale back the state’s ban on abortion. The court has also been asked to weigh in on a legal fight over how much control Sanders has over the state’s prisons.

The 2016 race for chief justice was highlighted by outside conservative groups spending heavily on caustic TV ads and mailers. Those groups haven’t played a factor in this year’s race, but it’s still dominated by candidates making appeals to conservatives.

Two of the candidates for chief justice have Republican Party ties: Webb is married to a former state GOP chairman and Wood was appointed to a judgeship by Sanders’ father, former Gov. Mike Huckabee. Martin ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for governor two years ago touting his opposition to abortion.

Baker won reelection in 2022, defeating a former Republican lawmaker who touted himself as a constitutional conservative. She did not respond to requests for an interview, but said in a recent forum that improving attorney licensure is one of the areas she’d like to focus.

Webb, who was first elected to the court in 2020, is touting herself as the only candidate with “hands on managerial experience” that includes her time as chief administrative law judge of the Workers Compensation Commission. She’s also served as a prosecutor and circuit judge.

“I’ve always tried to improve the administration of justice,” Webb told The Associated Press in an interview.

Wood, who was first elected to the court in 2014 and reelected in 2022, said she believed she had unique experience to move the state’s judiciary forward.

“I just see the tremendous need in the state for a chief who has the ability to see all the moving parts and just seize the opportunity with everything going on in the world,” she said.

Martin, who served two terms in the state House, said he’s concerned about the independence of the judicial system.

“People need to know that they’re going to base their decisions on the facts and the law,” he said.

If one of the sitting justices wins the race, they would be the first woman elected to the post. Betty Dickey was appointed chief justice by Huckabee in 2004. Women hold four of the seven seats on the court.

Hudson, who was first elected to the court in 2010, is seeking a position different than her own so would continue serving on the court if she loses Tuesday’s race. Her bid for position two would allow her to serve additional time on the court because of the judicial retirement rules.

“This is about me working longer, serving the people longer rather than sitting back and drawing a retirement check,” she said.

Jones, a circuit judge from Texarkana, would become the court’s first elected Black justice and Arkansas’ first Black elected statewide official since Reconstruction if he wins Tuesday’s race.

Jones said he has no criticism of Hudson and thinks she’s done a good job on the court.

“Nothing about this race will change the fact that she’ll still be a justice on the Arkansas Supreme Court on March 6, 2024, no matter what,” Jones said.

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This story has been updated to correct that Jones would be Arkansas’ first Black elected statewide official since Reconstruction if he wins Tuesday’s race

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2 races, including crowded chief justice campaign, could push Arkansas court further to the right