AR Panel Lays Groundwork to Examine Judicial Selection Reform

The Arkansas House Judiciary Committee, in an information-gathering phase, heard testimony on Friday about judicial selection methods used in varying states. The panel is examining possible reform of judicial elections, and as part of its work, it collected information about nearly two dozen states that use a merit selection system instead.

An Arkansas News article said non-partisan popular election of judges is  “a method some detractors say makes candidates beholden to big-money donors and raises concerns about outside groups spending huge sums to influence elections.” The issue of reform has assumed a higher profile since state Supreme Court elections earlier this year were both contentious and costly (see Gavel Grab).

Arkansas Opinion: End Elections to Choose Appellate Judges

Amid debate over judicial selection reform in Arkansas (see Gavel Grab), a columnist focuses on what he sees as a “crazy” provision intended to protect fair and impartial courts. Better to scrap judicial elections entirely, he says, and replace them with merit selection of appellate judges.

Columnist John Brummett sums it up this way in the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette: Under state ethics rules, a judge “must not know his campaign donors. Then he must disqualify from cases in which those campaign donors are parties.” Brummett opines, “I call it crazy as a betsy bug.”

The issue goes a lot deeper, he continues, because it is fundamentally inappropriate “to [subject] a judge to electoral politics.” Brummett explains, “We’re electing people to do a job they can’t do because of having to get elected. … The solution is simple. It’s to stop electing judges, at least at the appellate level. It is to make judgeship selection a matter of meritorious peer review and gubernatorial nomination and state Senate confirmation.”


Columnist Takes Aim at Critiques of Judicial Section Reform

Arkansas_quarter_reverse_side_2003With varying proposals floated to change the way Arkansas Supreme Court justices are chosen, columnist John Brummett seeks to bring some context in a Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette opinion.

First, he suggests, the Arkansas Trial Lawyers Association wants to preserve the election of justices because trial lawyers prefer competing in the judicial election arena with a force that they know, the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce. “That’s what state Supreme Court races largely come down to: Money from suing lawyers versus money from defending businesses,” Brummett writes. He contends this system doesn’t result in justice for all, and that merit selection would be a big improvement, although it may not be adopted. (more…)

How to Ensure Impartial Justices in Arkansas? A Quandary

Judge Kemp
Judge Kemp

As possible reforms to judicial selection in Arkansas are debated, future Chief Justice Dan Kemp noted that current ethics rules create a quandary, and may invite revision, according to The Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. 

He pointed to ethics rules that say a judicial candidate ought not know who contributed to his or her campaign. At the same time, ethics rules require a judge to recuse from any case involving a campaign donation large enough to “raise questions as to the judge’s impartiality.” Kemp said, “It’s a difficult situation. I do believe we need to look at some possible reforms.”

After hundreds of thousands of dollars in political “dark money” were spent in this year’s Arizona Supreme Court election, there have been calls for tough disclosure rules. At the same time, some advocates have urged a switch to merit selection of judges. The Democrat-Gazette article outlined options that might be considered for reform, including a rules change adopted by the court’s justices themselves.

Arkansas Court Sets Up Panel to Study Judicial Selection Reform

Add the Arkansas Supreme Court to those intent on studying whether to change the way the state’s top judges are chosen. A committee of justices is the latest planning to explore possible reform “after a pair of state Supreme Court races that were overshadowed by record breaking spending from outside conservative groups,” the Associated Press said.

Earlier this month the Arkansas Bar Association set up a panel to study reform (see Gavel Grab), and this week a state Senate committee held a hearing on the topic (click here for Gavel Grab).

At a blog of The Arkansas Times, Max Brantley took a skeptical view of the announced Supreme Court study. At The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, an editorial suggested that while proponents and opponents debate about replacing judicial elections with merit selection, faster and fuller disclosure of judicial election donors.

Editorial: Given PA Court’s ‘Rap Sheet,’ It’s Time for Merit Selection

Various editorial boards’ hammering at the scandal-ridden Pennsylvania Supreme Court, and urging a switch to merit selection of top judges to pick better qualified jurists, is unrelenting. The latest comes from LancasterOnline.

The editorial mocks the “court rap sheet” that includes one ex-justice convicted of corruption and two others disgraced, having resigned in an offensive email scandal. It finds the big money-fueled, partisan system for electing justices wanting and declares, “We believe a merit system is the answer.”

“We are hesitant to take away power from voters. But, given the scandals revolving around the state’s elected judges, and the meager voter turnout — one in five of eligible voters came out during the past election cycle — our current system has left us with little choice,” the editorial says. “The General Assembly should pass this bill. It would represent an important step toward judicial independence. It would (more…)

AR: Late-Hour Donations Came From Out-of-State Attorneys

The unsuccessful campaign for Arkansas chief justice of Justice Courtney Goodson received $40,675 in last-minute donations from attorneys at several out-of-state law firms with ties to Goodson’s spouse, lawyer John Goodson, according to The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

The newspaper reported this year that six class-action law firms were among the most generous campaign donors to the court’s six justices; it said Goodson was the biggest recipient of such donations, and her husband’s firm was one of the big donors. She has stepped aside from hearing litigation tied to her husband’s firm. The Democrat-Gazette’s articles have been part of an increased focus on money in judicial elections that set the stage for debate over possible reform and a legislative hearing scheduled for Wednesday (see Gavel Grab).

Goodson was defeated by Circuit Judge Dan Kemp. Goodson, according to the newspaper, “has decided other class-action lawsuits that have helped maintain Arkansas’ rules and procedures for those types of cases. The state’s procedures are among the friendliest in the nation to plaintiffs’ lawyers such as John Goodson, according to law professors.”

Amid Rising Debate, a Call for Merit Selection in Arkansas

Debate is brewing in Arkansas over possible reform of the way appellate judges are elected, and amid the back-and-forth, a column by attorney Woody Bassett in The Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette solidly advocates a shift to merit selection:

“In recent years campaigns for the Arkansas Supreme Court have left many of us feeling disillusioned and disheartened, regardless of whether our favored candidate won or lost. Rank partisan politics, undue influence from special interest groups and the injection of vast amounts of money into Supreme Court campaigns from both known and unknown sources are harming our state’s judicial system by eroding the respect, confidence and trust of the citizens of Arkansas in our state’s highest court.

“While most people firmly and correctly believe our circuit and district judges should continue to be chosen by the voters in the counties where they serve, Arkansas needs to establish and implement a system of merit-selection to choose who will serve on our state’s appellate courts. To do so will require that the people of this state amend the Arkansas Constitution and it’s time for our Legislature to adopt and refer such an amendment to the voters of Arkansas.”


Sharon Herald Calls for Merit in Pennsylvania

An opinion piece in the Sharon Herald calls for the adoption of merit selection in Pennsylvania. The article highlights the lack of information available to voters and the amount of money spent on “nasty attack ads” as particular areas of concern under the current system of partisan elections.

“Since candidates are typically circumspect on how they would rule in specific cases,” the newspaper writes, “voters have had to gather clues from endorsements or the candidates’ party affiliations…It’s not exactly throwing darts, but it’s pretty close.”

Referencing the bipartisan group of Pennsylvania governors that recently came out in favor of a merit selection system for the state, the Herald writes, “Schweiker raises another salient point — these contests have been subject to an enormous amount of spending, with nasty attack ads blanketing the airwaves…And the overwhelming bulk of that cash almost certainly came from advocacy groups, business interests or lawyers who had a vested interest in the outcome.”going to a merit selection would increase the chances that our judges will be chosen on the basis of actual merit. Let’s hope the Legislature gets the ball rolling.”

Going to merit selection “would increase the chances that our judges will be chosen on the basis of actual merit. Let’s hope the Legislature gets the ball rolling,” the article concludes. In October 2015, the House Judiciary Committee approved a proposed constitutional amendment that would introduce a merit selection system for the state’s appellate courts (see Gavel Grab for background). The proposal has yet to make any further progress.

Angry Tirade Becomes Focus of Selection Debate

According to the Tulsa World, an “angry tirade” made last year by a state lawmaker from Oklahoma has become the focus of recent efforts to highlight the partisan motivations behind Republican criticism of the way Supreme Court justices are appointed.

Rep. Kevin Calvey, who recently filed a bill to change the selection system for justices and appellate court judges to judicial elections, took to the House floor last April to protest against the Supreme Court’s abortion rulings. “If I were not a Christian and didn’t have a prohibition against suicide, I’d walk across the street, douse myself in gasoline and set myself on fire to protest the evil that is going on over there (at the state Supreme Court),” the newspaper quotes him as saying. (more…)