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story.lead_photo.caption Dan Kemp and his wife, Susan, leave the state Capitol in Little Rock on Nov. 6, 2015, after he fi led paperwork to run for chief justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court. Kemp won the election and will join the court in January. - Photo by Stephen B. Thornton

In five successful races for circuit judge, the only time Dan Kemp faced opposition was in 1986, his first election.

Photo by Melissa Gerrits
Longtime Supreme Court Clerk Ann Grimes (from left), retired Chief Justice Jack Holt, Susan Kemp, future Chief Justice Dan Kemp and Associate Justice Josephine Hart tell stories Sept. 9 with one another during a celebration for the 180th birthday of the Supreme Court in Little Rock.

But when the Mountain View resident decided to run for a much higher-profile position -- chief justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court -- he faced an opponent with experience on the high court, Justice Courtney Goodson of Texarkana.

In a race that saw more than $1 million spent on TV advertisements -- mostly from an out-of-state group targeting Goodson -- Kemp won more than 57 percent of the vote to defeat Goodson in the March 1 judicial general election.

Kemp, a bespectacled Church of Christ elder with a graying mustache, will assume his leadership role over the state's highest court in January. In addition to serving as a justice on the seven-member appellate court, Kemp also will be the chief executive officer of the state courts and a spokesman for the judicial branch.

The chief justice's administrative duties include reviewing or proposing new judicial rules, making appointments to boards and commissions, developing the judicial budget and serving on the national Conference of Chief Justices, according to J.D. Gingerich, the director of the Administrative Office of the Courts.

"Among all of the various issues that occur, my experience is that the chief justice is handling one or more of those things on a regular day," Gingerich said.

Kemp agreed to an interview with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette to discuss his administrative plans for the judiciary, the influence of anonymously sourced "dark money" in the campaign and proposals to change the method of selecting justices.

While at a judicial retreat on Petit Jean Mountain earlier this month, the seven members of the incoming 2017 court issued a resolution in support of retaining judicial elections at all levels and opposing any system of merit selection. The court will include Goodson, who has two years left as the Position 3 justice.

Kemp, along with Justice-elect Shawn Womack, will be sworn in on Jan. 10 and will immediately begin taking up cases that are in front of the court.

Supreme Court justices are elected to eight-year terms. As chief justice, Kemp will make $180,000 a year.

The following responses have been edited for length.

What are some of your thoughts and plans for the court, especially looking at some of the administrative aspects you'll be managing?

Kemp: I've been going around campaigning and heard a lot from people about the confidence they have in the court system, and for some people the lack of confidence.

I hope to be kind of a steadying influence.

People have expressed to me that they believe there should be consistency and predictability in the law, and they expect the Supreme Court to provide that predictability.

As far as things that are coming up, we're going to electronic filing. Throughout the state, more counties are getting onto the electronic filing system. Eventually that's going to be statewide, so we want to see that implemented.

Administratively, through the courts, are there any changes you're looking at making or evaluating?

Kemp: What I want to do is just get into the job and get my feet on the ground and see what the situation is before I make any changes.

I'm an administrative judge in my judicial district, in the 16th District, and have been for eight or 10 years, so I'm aware of some administrative matters that might need to be addressed, but I don't know if that's a statewide deal.

You mentioned electronic court filing. There's also CourtConnect, through which the courts upload their decisions, briefs, filings that have been made that are publicly available, but not all counties use the system. Have you looked into that?

Kemp: I haven't yet. I just have to see what the statistics are throughout the state to see how many counties are doing it.

Eventually, we'll have to go to a statewide electronic filing system, that's the goal. So we just have to see what counties are using and what it's going to take to implement. I just have to gather that information first before I can say.

There were four initiated acts and constitutional amendments that passed through the petition process this year; only one of them survived court challenges. Where do you see the court's role in reviewing and upholding or striking down initiated acts and amendments?

Kemp: It's just part of the process, and I'm sure the same thing's going to come up every election year when these things are proposed. We may need to look, the court may need to look at, a procedure to try to get these cases decided before a ballot is printed. Because as I understand it, there are unwritten rules on the process that court goes through and the way the cases get before the court, and how they're circulated and actually submitted for the decisions.

I believe that's a tradition that's come down, and I think George Rose Smith was a justice that kind of established that system years ago and it's still been followed. That's another thing that the public addressed to me when I was campaigning. They don't know what this process is, so we may need to have some transparency and get some of these rules in writing and say, 'Hey, this is the way it's done.'"

These are rules that were established over the years, but it may be time to [have] the Supreme Court adopt this procedure and let the public know what the procedure is. I think that will help with the transparency situation.

Do you think the court was generally fair in its handling of these cases?

Kemp: As far as I know, they were fair in the process. I think part of the problem, as I perceive it, is the way the law is written, and what the requirements under that law are. If they're not followed correctly, then there's going to be consequences, and I think that's what happened in some of those cases. The court found that it wasn't properly followed, and they ruled accordingly.

Justice Goodson wrote one of the opinions in this case saying this is a process that needs to be amended. Has [Goodson] or any of the other justices reached out to you on this issue?

Kemp: No, no.

Have people in the Legislature?

Kemp: Not at this point, no.

Another topic that's been broached by some in the General Assembly is the ending of judicial races for Supreme Court justices. What are your thoughts on that, having just gotten out of a race yourself?

Kemp: I favor the people electing appellate judges. One of the reasons, having just been in a campaign, people aren't afraid to tell you what they think about the court system when you're out campaigning. Now I could foresee if someone is appointed to that position, they're not going to be out campaigning and hearing the thoughts of the general public, the people, about what they think about the court system. Because as a judge you're isolated to a great extent about what information you're going to get. But when you're out campaigning, you get an opportunity to get that because people freely give you their opinions on the court system.

Like I mentioned just a moment ago, I found out that people thought the court was making up the rules as they go, but they do have these unwritten rules that they go by. It may just be a matter of letting people know they do have these rules, so the people are aware.

Is there any room for change in the system? Merit selection?

Kemp: There's room for change in the election system. There needs to be some consideration on something to address the dark money issue, not just in judicial elections, but in executive positions and also legislative positions, too. It's going to happen in all races, not just in judicial races.

What do you think is a reasonable proposal for campaign finance reform?

Kemp: I've heard it was [state Rep.] Clarke Tucker [D-Little Rock, who] proposed a bill, I think it was two years ago, and probably has something in the hopper for this coming session to do something to provide, I don't know the details of it, either requiring it be known or somebody registers who's behind the contributions or the amount the contribution is, something of that nature.

I think there must be some way, surely, that other states have done that Arkansas can possibly do to address that and hopefully prevent something like that from happening again in the future, not only in judicial races, but all races.

So, you would support bills that require the disclosure of people that are giving funding to groups that then fund campaigns?

Kemp: Yes.

That was a topic that came up in your campaign, out-of-state groups where their funding sources weren't known. How do you think that affected your campaign looking back on it?

Kemp: It probably brought more attention to our race for the chief justice position than a lot of races. I felt confident that I was going to be successful in winning the race even before those ads started coming out. You look at initial polling that was done about the time I filed. There was a poll that came out the end of January, the first of February, that showed the race was about dead even then. I was trending in the right direction, and I felt like we were going to continue trending in the right direction for Election Day.

Those ads may have increased the percentage of my victory somewhat, but I still felt like I was going to have a victory anyway.

What was your reaction when you saw the ads?

Kemp: I was glad they weren't directed toward me. I went in with the expectation that there would probably be some ads, dark money ads against me. I was glad those weren't against me, and I still expected some before the election day.

You saw those ads coming, you expected them?

Kemp: No, I didn't expect those ads against her, I didn't expect those, but I was expecting some against me. Some dark money ads, because they had been prevalent in the race two years before [in another race for the Supreme Court].

What did you think about the content of those ads? Did you think they were fair?

Kemp: Generally I did, because they were. I thought they were truthful, they just were based on reports that were filed, public reports. There was one ad that I thought was not, and I disavowed that.

Which one?

Kemp: That was the one making the connection between the Supreme Court's decision on voter ID laws, a unanimous decision, but they were making some kind of connection with some kind of position of the Obama administration. So I didn't think that was fair because it was a unanimous decision.

When the public looks at these races and sees these types of ads and the dark money coming in, how does that affect their judgment of the races?

Kemp: I don't know, that's hard, I'm not sure. I think overall people don't prefer those kinds of ads. I think they'd want to see more positive ads themselves. I think it may bring about more skepticism on all races, not just judicial races but all races.

Since the election, what kind of conversations and meetings have you had with your fellow Supreme Court justices?

Kemp: We've had one meeting, the five justices on the court, plus me and Judge Womack. ... People have asked me quite a bit what's it going to be like working with Justice Goodson, especially since [we] ran against each other. But I think the voters trust that we're both going to do our jobs and both going to fulfill our oaths of office to decide the cases fairly according to the Constitution and devote our time and energy to streamlining the justice system, and I believe I could work well with Justice Goodson as well as Justice [Karen] Baker and Justices [Josephine] Hart, [Robin] Wynne and [Rhonda] Wood and Womack. We do what people elected us for, which is decide cases according to the rules.

If the makeup of the U.S. Supreme Court changes at all, in personality or ideology, how do you think that affects your decisions down here on the state level?

Kemp: I don't think it would have much effect. It would have very little effect. I think we're just deciding the cases that are coming before our court, and the appeals that come up. Usually we're dealing with issues of state law, the state constitution, occasionally we'll have some issues that may deal with the U.S. Constitution. You look at some Supreme Court cases, but primarily it's going to be a state constitution or state law. So I wouldn't anticipate it would be much.

Anything I haven't asked about?

Kemp: I would like to go around the state and visit all the judicial districts and visit with the circuit judges and the district judges there and the clerks or personnel, state employees. Because these courts, the district courts, is where a majority of the people have their interaction with the court system. Of course, the Supreme Court is a court of last resort, and there's very few cases that actually go up to the Supreme Court, maybe 150-200 cases or so a year. But there are thousands of cases that are in circuit court and district court, so I think that's important for the confidence of the public of seeing these courts and how they operate. So I'd like to go around and visit the judicial districts, and it may take a year or two to do that, but to get a sense of what problems they're facing and having them to share that with me. Take those back to the Supreme Court to address some issues that they raise.

SundayMonday on 12/25/2016

Print Headline: Kemp looks ahead to high court role

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