Pulaski County voters, for the first time, will be asked to choose the next Little Rock District criminal judge in today's election from a field of four candidates, each offering substantial courtroom experience to the race.
On the ballot today are Melanie Martin of Little Rock, a Pulaski County deputy prosecutor for more than 25 years; Margaret "Peggy" Egan of Little Rock who has been a deputy public defender, with a special interest in juvenile advocacy, for the past 16 years; JaNan Davis of Maumelle, that city's former elected prosecutor of 14 years now with the Rainwater, Holt & Sexton firm; and LaTonya Austin of Sherwood, a former prosecutor and public defender now with her own practice.
The district judge's primary duties are conducting first-appearance arraignments and setting bail for all arrests by Little Rock police, as well as presiding over trials in misdemeanor criminal cases in the city. The judge also reviews and authorizes search and arrest-warrant applications submitted by law enforcement.
The $147,084-a-year judgeship is seen as one of the busiest in the state, with 6,652 cases filed in 2017, including 12,938 felony charges and 57,568 misdemeanors.
Today's special election to choose a new judge is a countywide race because the post has been enhanced to a "state district" judgeship, a position with extended jurisdiction that now includes some cases filed in circuit court involving domestic abuse, child support enforcement and unlawful detainers.
The seat came into play following the retirement of Alice Lightle, the last elected judge, in April 2017 a few months into her second four-year term. Gov. Asa Hutchinson appointed Hugh Finkelstein to fill the post until a successor, who will take office in January, can be elected to finish the two years left on Lightle's term.
Austin, 43, said her experiences beyond criminal court make her the best candidate for the job now that the judge's duties have expanded.
In nearly 16 years as a lawyer, she's been a prosecutor and defense attorney, plus worked as a deputy city attorney for Little Rock and is now a small-business owner with her own practice, which includes civil and family law.
She's also had the opportunity to serve as a special district court judge.
"In just about every area that will come through district court, I've practiced," she said.
She said her deep ties to the community are also an important asset.
"I'm the only candidate born and raised in Little Rock. I live in Sherwood, but there's a large part of my life still in Little Rock. My business is here, my family and friends are here," Austin said. "That sets me apart because it allows me to have experience and knowledge of the people of Little Rock, the culture of Little Rock. The types of people who often appear in district court, I can understand and relate to them and their lives because I'm from here."
Asked about the $3,000 in state tax liens against her, Austin said she's never shirked her obligations and is on a payment plan with tax authorities to make good. She said the debt, one of the perils of being a small business owner, grew out of a difficult time in her life, a divorce and serious illness, but is no reflection on her abilities as a judge or an attorney.
Davis, 46, said she's the only candidate with first-hand experience as a judge in Little Rock District Court, having regularly served as a special judge for Lightle.
Davis said she's also the only one in the race who has ever been an elected official. Her experience as Maumelle's elected city attorney taught her how to accept and respond to public criticism.
"I think that's really helped develop my temperament," she said. "Being willing to answer to the public is important."
Not everyone who comes to court needs to leave with a conviction, she said. The judge needs to recognize defendants who need a chance to prove who they really are. As a prosecutor, she helped develop programs in Maumelle that would provide those chances by requiring drug treatment and community service, she said.
"I saw a lot of young people, young families, in district court where they needed a second chance. We created some unique diversion opportunities where people could show that what ... they had engaged in was not part of their character," she said. "We'd give them opportunities ... to avoid convictions in particular cases. And we saw that work."
Davis also noted her extensive experience working with police as a certified law enforcement instructor, training them in constitutional law and appropriate search and seizure practices, as well as use of force.