LITTLE ROCK ELECTIONS are no longer held just on election days. With the onset of early voting across the country, choices are made weeks before the polls close. Election Day this year may not be till Tuesday, November 2nd, but early voting here in Arkansas begins Monday, October 18th-which is only a couple of weeks away. These days endorsements need to be made early and often.
Like a chore you know needs to be done soon, in this shop the task of endorsing candidates looms larger and more pressing every passing day. It doesn’t help being aware that the clock is ticking. The pages of the calendar seem to turn faster and faster, and begin to fall away like the leaves this time of year. Decision Day approaches. Earlier than ever.
Some of those decisions won’t be easy; they may take time to crystallize. We’re trying to hold on to the good thought: Maybe there’ll be a telling development late in the campaign that will make the choice obvious even in the closest and most hard-fought contest. And eliminate the need for all that agonizing over whom to support. It can happen in a moment, like sunlight breaking through the clouds. At least one can hope for that kind of revelation. And if it doesn’t arrive, well, there’s no law that says a newspaper has to endorse a candidate in every race. But it would be nice if the choice were as clear as it is in the race for Position 6 on the state’s Supreme Court.
Even before early voting begins, the decision in this race is easy: Her Honor Karen Baker. This judge’s experience on and off the bench isn’t just deep but broad and varied. Beginning in the mid-1990s, the lady served successively as judge of circuit, chancery and juvenile courts, and this is her 10th year on the state’s Court of Appeals.
JUDGE BAKER’S experience isn’t just a matter of years served and courts presided over; it shows in the increasing respect in which her opinions are held by the state’s highest court. Her rulings as a circuit judge were upheld on 33 of 38 appeals, or 87 percent of the time. That’s almost 9 out of 10, while the statewide average for judges being upheld on appeal is 80 percent.
Oh, yes, she’s also served as a public defender and, during her time in private practice, she not only took on every kind of case that came walking through the door, but acted as a guardian-at-law for hundreds of children in child-abuse and neglect cases. This judge is experienced not just in the law but in life.
In the first round of the state’s nonpartisan judicial elections, Judge Baker narrowly missed winning a majority of the vote, garnering some 48 percent of the vote to the 37 percent cast for her closest opponent, Tim Fox, a circuit judge.
When it comes to having his rulings upheld on appeal. Judge Fox comes in at only 81 percent Or, as he admits, “Maybe I should have given more weight to judicial precedent than I gave . . . .” No maybe about it. And the state’s Supreme Court once found that Judge Fox had violated the Freedom of Information Act by not providing a document to an attorney who’d appeared before him. As we said, the choice is clear.
Let’s also take judicial notice of Karen Baker’s fine record as an appellate judge, a level of the judiciary on which her opponent in this election has no experience at all. Of the ten dissenting opinions Judge Baker has written on the state’s Court of Appeals that were reviewed by the Supreme Court, eight-that’s right, eight-have been upheld by the state Supreme Court. That’s an impressive showing for any judge on an appellate court.
Another testament to Judge Baker’s competence came earlier this year: In a 7-0 ruling, the Arkansas Supreme Court upheld the unanimous decision she wrote in the Turk Power Plant case. In it, she found that the state’s Public Service Commission hadn’t followed the law in approving plans for its construction.
Without making any judgment on the wisdom of coal-fired plants in general or this one in Hempstead County in particular, Judge Baker and her colleagues on the Court of Appeals simply followed the law that the PSC hadn’t. And soon enough the state’s Supreme Court followed her lead.
Here was more evidence of Judge Baker’s allegiance to impartial law. And it is the law that Judge Baker has followed throughout her career-not her own personal feelings, though she certainly has them. Especially when it comes to children and protecting their welfare.
HERE’S something else for the conscientious and well informed voter to keep in mind when it comes time to mark that crowded ballot. Within the coming decade-indeed, well before it ends-every one of the sitting judges on the state’s Supreme Court except maybe one will have reached retirement age. The state’s highest court will need all the experienced jurists it can muster, And not just experienced judges but wise ones, the kind who have demonstrated diligence, impartiality and deep respect for the law. Judges like Karen Baker.
Here’s a candidate for the state’s highest court who has been interested in the law since she was a girl, and has followed the subject ever since with a keen interest, not to say an ever renewed curiosity. All of which show in her decisions.
Whenever we consider judicial candidates, our gold standard, our platinum standard, in these matters is the example of Arkansas’ own Richard S. Arnold, who along with Learned Hand may have been the finest jurist never to have served on the U.S. Supreme Court. Yet his learning was lightly borne, as illuminating as his conclusions were concise. It is the seeds of such greatness we look for whenever considering a judicial race. Karen Baker of Clinton, Ark., not only has shown that kind of promise over the years, but has begun to fulfill it in ever greater measure.
As the last days of a spirited campaign approach, the two candidates find themselves sparring over the usual minutiae that clutter every race as it nears the finish line-in their case, which candidate has more closely hewn to the non-partisan spirit in which judicial races are supposed to be waged in Arkansas. Amidst all the heat, it might help to shine a light on the real, major difference between the two candidates: One has years of experience on the appellate bench, and not just experience but the best kind: making decisions that have stood up to the scrutiny of the state’s highest court. That candidate is Karen Baker.
Dear Voter, put this lady on the state Supreme Court. She’s earned it, and the state needs her there.