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story.lead_photo.caption Jon Comstock (left) and Chad Pekron discuss a proposed state constitutional amendment on appointing, instead of electing, Arkansas Supreme Court justices during an Arkansas Bar Association meeting Friday in Little Rock. The group’s House of Delegates fell short of approving the proposal, which was drafted by a task force that Comstock led. Pekron was among those opposed. - Photo by Staton Breidenthal

The Arkansas Bar Association's House of Delegates on Friday fell short of endorsing a proposed constitutional amendment that would give that body a majority stake in selecting state Supreme Court justices.

The delegates met to discuss an amendment drafted by a task force of bar members. The task force was formed after the delegates voted this summer to adopt a policy in favor of creating a commission to nominate justices for appointment. Some delegates voiced concerns Friday over the proposed makeup of the commission.

Hours before the delegates gathered at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock's Bowen School of Law, the seven justices set to serve on the Supreme Court next year released a resolution opposing any plan to do away with judicial elections, the current method of selection.

The delegates voted 34-20 for the proposed amendment, but it needed the support of three-quarters of the members present to pass. The House of Delegates has 81 members and five officers.

Friday's action comes a little more than three weeks before the state Legislature starts meeting in regular session on Jan. 9. In each regular session, the Legislature can refer proposed amendments to the next general election.

Bar Association President Denise Hoggard said the delegates can consider during their February meeting whether to back any other proposed amendments on judicial selection.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson has said he would support the creation of an appointment system for Supreme Court justices, as have the leadership of both the House and Senate committees on the judiciary. However, the lawmakers differ on the specifics of their plans.

During a news conference Friday afternoon to announce an unrelated executive action, Hutchinson declined to comment on the delegates' vote. He referred to his earlier support for ending elections to the Supreme Court.

Concerns about "dark money" spending in three recent Supreme Court races has fueled interest in replacing elections with judicial appointments.

Dark money refers to untraceable donations made in political races, often to fund advertisements that are not directly associated with either campaign. Out-of-state groups spent nearly $1 million on such attack ads in two Supreme Court races this spring. The subjects of those ads both lost their races.

The Arkansas Bar Association delegates decided to form a task force to study merit selection in March after the body discussed a series of Arkansas Democrat-Gazette articles about campaign contributions made to the justices, according to minutes from a March meeting.

After the task force's recommendation in support of merit selection was approved by the delegates in June, Hoggard appointed a task force to write a draft amendment.

The draft, released to the delegates for review last month, proposed to create a nine-member commission to nominate justices for 14-year-terms. The commission would send three picks to the governor for final selection.

Five of those members -- enough to make a pick if the governor declined to -- would have been lawyers appointed by the bar and the Supreme Court. The remaining members would be appointed by the governor, House speaker and Senate president pro tempore.

After talking with the governor, bar delegate Chad Pekron told his colleagues that any plan giving such appointment power to nonelected officials is "DOA"-- dead on arrival.

"We all know that as a matter of practical reality, our association's credibility with the General Assembly, with the governor's office, is probably as low as it's ever been, if we put this out there and try to use our resources on it, we're blowing what little credibility we have," Pekron said.

During the delegates' hourlong debate, Pekron also read aloud the Supreme Court's resolution, which he said several of the justices asked him to do. The delivery of the court's resolution to the Bar Association meeting unsettled some of the delegates who favored the proposed amendment.

"The resolution from the court is, I don't know, it's uncomfortable," Jon Comstock, chairman of the task force, said. "It's almost like, are we supposed to be on a collision course with our justices? That seems bold."

The court's resolution was not signed by two current justices who are departing at the end of the year: Chief Justice Howard Brill and Justice Paul Danielson.

The Arkansas Judicial Council, an association for judges, also opposes merit selection for Supreme Court justices.

A Section on 12/17/2016

Print Headline: Vote rejects draft on justice selection

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