Arkansas Supreme Court candidates see ‘politics’ differently

Candidates for Supreme Court
Candidates for Supreme Court

Both of the candidates seeking to unseat Justice Courtney Goodson for a spot on the Arkansas Supreme Court say they’ll work to stamp out “judicial advocacy” on the high court — even though neither cited examples of such activism at work.

Such allegations, which attempt to paint officially nonpartisan judges as overtly political, are not new in Arkansas.

The stringent rules set in place to keep politics — or prejudicial opinions — out of court races tend to also mute candidates’ criticisms over a specific court action or ruling.

Still, the challengers, Arkansas Court of Appeals Judge Kenneth Hixson and top Department of Human Services attorney David Sterling, say complaints about “activist” judges are a common refrain from voters.

“It surprises me that ordinary citizens are attuned to pick up that kind of issue,” said Hixson, who clarified that no voter had raised issues over a specific case with him.

“Honestly, I think that people are looking for a change,” Sterling said, before adding, “I have not heard specific criticisms of certain cases or specific judges.”

[FULL LIST: All candidates for major state offices]

Goodson, one of the two longest-serving justices currently on the high court, said criticism of her record or the court’s decisions is not what she’s been hearing on the campaign trail, where she has made a point through social media of noting that she has attended Republican and Democratic events.

“I have not heard that from Arkansans, I have not heard that from anyone but my opponents,” Goodson said in a telephone interview last month. “It seems that the term ‘too political’ is used in a convenient way as code for, ‘I’m not happy that I didn’t get my way. I’m not happy because I lost my case.'”

[FULL LIST: Statewide contested races in May 22 primary]

The election for the court seat, along with other judicial races, will be held May 22. If none of the candidates earns a majority of the vote, a runoff will be held Nov. 6, the same day as the general election.

Supreme Court justices are elected to eight-year terms and are expected to earn $174,925 next year under a proposed pay increase.

Observers of the court had noted the relatively placid nature of this year’s Supreme Court campaign, until television ads and mailers appeared last week. The Judicial Crisis Network, an out-of-state conservative group that has spent big money in campaigns of recent years — including Goodson’s failed 2016 bid for chief justice — revealed last week a six-figure ad purchase attacking Goodson. Also, the Republican State Leadership Committee announced its ad-purchase supporting Sterling.

The justice immediately responded by condemning the Judicial Crisis Network’s campaign, calling it “an effort to buy votes,” according to The Associated Press. The Judicial Crisis Network, which is not affiliated with a campaign, does not disclose its donors.

The lines of attack against Goodson this year are similar to those used against her in 2016: money spent by trial lawyers on her campaigns and expensive gifts she reported receiving from her husband, John Goodson, and a business partner, according to filings with the Federal Communications Commission.

Hixson and Sterling denied having anything to do with the Judicial Crisis Network ads, and said they are preparing…

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