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story.lead_photo.caption Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Courtney Goodson and David Sterling

Targeted by out-of-state attack ads, Supreme Court Justice Courtney Goodson survived an initial round of voting Tuesday and advanced to a November runoff election where she will face David Sterling, the beneficiary of outside spending.

Court of Appeals Judge Kenneth Hixson, who also had been the target of attack ads, fell short in the three-way race.

Speaking from her home in Fayetteville, Goodson called the results a "huge victory for honest people who are fed up with the lies dark money has spread about me."

The justice, who is in the last year of her first eight-year term, said she is prepared in the runoff to continue speaking out against the influence of outside groups.

[ELECTIONS COVERAGE: Find all results + stories]

Sterling held a campaign rally Tuesday night in downtown Little Rock, where he told supporters that most voters had favored someone other than Goodson, and were "looking for a change in the highest court."

Hixson said before final results were in late Tuesday that he would hold out hope in the election until the end. "I never give up until the jury comes back," he said.

With 2,694 of the 2,749 precincts reporting, the unofficial results were:

Goodson 114,053

Sterling 102,581

Hixson 88,040

No sitting Arkansas Supreme Court justice has lost a re-election race since at least 1976, the earliest year in which online election records are available from the secretary of state's office.

Goodson's share of the three-way vote was her lowest showing in three races for the state's highest court. In her unsuccessful 2016 bid for chief justice, Goodson earned 42 percent of the vote, and in 2010 she received 57 percent to join the high court.

In circuit court last week, her lawyers pointed to the justice's declining vote totals as they attempted to build a case about the influence of outside spending in Arkansas' judicial elections. Since 2010, two other candidates for the high court have lost their election campaigns after being hit by ads funded by out-of-state groups.

"The past is undeniable," said Lauren Hoover, Goodson's attorney. "In every race in which these folks from D.C. have been involved, run dark money, the candidate that had their support won."

With three candidates on the Supreme Court ballot this year, the Judicial Crisis Network, based in Washington, D.C., decided to go after two of them with ads that declared Hixson as "soft on crime" and Goodson as a "rich insider." The group isn't required to disclose its donors.

Another Washington-based group, the Republican State Leadership Committee, spent more than $500,000 to support Sterling, though that group's donors are disclosed on tax filings.

In total, the two groups spent more than $1 million on Arkansas' Supreme Court race, dwarfing the roughly $150,000 spent collectively by the candidates themselves.

Sterling, a 49-year-old chief attorney at the Department of Human Services, steadfastly denied any involvement in the ads, though he also never repudiated the message they delivered.

"We all say we hate negative ads, but the reality and the scholarship shows that we're motivated by them," said Janine Parry, a political scientist at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.

Based on unofficial results, Hixson won in Pulaski County, the state's largest county, but Goodson took many of the smaller counties around the state, where the attack ads aired in larger media markets may not have aired.

Hixson, 62, and Goodson, 45, took separate approaches in responding to the attacks.

At first, Goodson posted direct-to-voter pleas on her campaign social media accounts, but as the negative ads increased, she and her lawyers turned to the courts. A trio of lawsuits filed in Fayetteville, Fort Smith and Little Rock netted the justice temporary orders that halted the ads, at least for a bit, in Little Rock and Fayetteville.

But later intervention by Washington County Circuit Judge Doug Martin caused her campaign further trouble last week after it was reported that Martin's wife had financial ties to the firm of Goodson's husband, John Goodson. Martin had ordered negative ads against Justice Goodson taken off the air.

Goodson's campaign asked Martin to recuse from the case, which he did. The case was appointed to a special circuit judge who normally works in Pulaski County. That judge reversed Martin's order, finding that the ads were likely protected speech. But a circuit judge in Pulaski County assigned to the lawsuit filed in Little Rock put a stop to the ads there. The result of the two orders meant that TV ads critical of Goodson were allowed to run in Northwest Arkansas in the final weekend of the campaign, but not in Little Rock.

As polls approached their 7:30 p.m. closing time Tuesday, cable company Comcast gave notice that it would appeal the injunction to the Arkansas Supreme Court, which would require Goodson to recuse if the case is heard.

Hixson chose to forgo any legal efforts, and he instead denounced the involvement of the outside groups. He spent his campaign cash on TV ads portraying his upbringing in rural Paris in Logan County.

Because the race is nonpartisan and governed by strict ethics rules limiting what candidates can say about their intentions once elected, all three hopefuls gave their pitches in broad terms throughout the campaign.

As one of the longest-serving current justices, Goodson touted her experience and the efforts of her and her colleagues to manage a backlog of cases.

But Hixson, who has more total years of experience practicing law, also claimed experience and promised to make the court less "political," even though he could not point to examples of his claims regarding the court's opinions.

Sterling espoused "judicial conservatism" and made his ties to groups such as the Christian Legal Society and the National Rifle Association known on campaign material.

In fact, few issues actually dealing with Goodson's work on the court -- other than gifts and campaign contributions she received -- ever became part of the campaign.

As a justice, Goodson has written several high-profile opinions, including one to uphold the state's Method of Execution Act. She joined in a unanimous ruling by the court in 2016 to overturn a "tort reform" measure from the ballot, angering many Republicans and business groups.

In 2015, Goodson was one of four justices investigated, and cleared, by the state Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission on allegations that they intentionally delayed ruling in a same-sex marriage case until after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled separately to legalize such marriages across the country.

In an interview during the campaign, Goodson denied that the justices had delayed the case for political purposes. None of her opponents in this race mentioned the matter to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Information for this article was contributed by Ginny Monk of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Photo by Staton Breidenthal
Ruthie Johnson ponders her ballot at a precinct at Harris Elementary School in North Little Rock.
Kenneth Hixson

A Section on 05/23/2018

Print Headline: Goodson, Sterling in high court runoff

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  • RBear
    May 23, 2018 at 6:31 a.m.

    "Sterling, a 49-year-old chief attorney at the Department of Human Services, steadfastly denied any involvement in the ads, though he also never repudiated the message they delivered." Yep, now we get to see more of the mud slung by Sterling's "angels" in DC. While I'm not a Goodson fan, it looks like we get to vote for the lesser of two evils. Sterling has ZERO experience in dealing with the kind of judicial decisions he'll be force to act on if voters send him to the bench.
    This is more about JCN buying a candidate to do their bidding than serving the voters of Arkansas. It also shows how issue illiterate many Arkansans are when it comes to elections.

  • Bocepheus
    May 23, 2018 at 8:24 a.m.

    Goodson personifies what is wrong with the AR judiciary. Sterling isn’t beholding to the trial lawyers. It’s a clear choice now.

  • StarBaby
    May 23, 2018 at 8:50 a.m.

    I absolutely cannot, under any circumstance, vote for Courtney Goodson. She was one of the Supreme Court 5 responsible for removing Issue 7 from the ballot after early voting had started in 2016 and infringing on voters rights.
    I also cannot see myself voting for Sterling. He seems to be too extreme in one direction to me. I would question his being able to make fair unbiased decisions.
    I guess that doesn't leave any options for me. SMH

  • drs01
    May 23, 2018 at 9:36 a.m.

    Goodson's personal and professional life remind me too much of John Kerry. Aside from that, her husband's power, money and influence will always bring questions to any decision she makes as a Supreme. Isn't her (new) husband's money that put her on the court 8 years ago? Ironically, what should be the most respected, honorable elected position is now full of slim and dirt.
    To imply that Sterling in incapable of making decisions because he lacks experience would mean we should always elect the incumbents. But in Arkansas we seem to do just that.

  • TimberTopper
    May 23, 2018 at 9:37 a.m.

    More big dark money will flow into Arkansas to beat Goodson and Tucker, the likes of which we have never seen. And there will be those like Bocepheus that will vote because of a TV ad never spending the time to do research on either candidate. I'd much prefer one beholding to local trial lawyers than the dark money barons in Washington DC.

  • mrcharles
    May 23, 2018 at 10:51 a.m.

    OMG............ look what we got. as once said the lesser of two evils. Sterling has touted his southern gentlemen view of the world, where chaos in mixed with good ole boy lunacy of gods and guns.

    Like choosing between being bitten by a copperhead or rattlesnake.... neither is pleasant and both will make you sick , but the odds is that you probably will survive the copperhead but with the rattlesnake you might die or be disfigured from the bite.

    While it is hard to agree with ADG when they choose a candidate, evidently the land of jason rapert accepted the "technicality" of the law that Hixon was involved in as being soft on crime................... not a big fan of him, but he was less poisonous that the other two. Shows you the thoughtless thinking that the red state primates do.

    There is of course a place for experience. Who wants the doctors first triple bypass.

  • Arkie2017
    May 23, 2018 at 11:10 a.m.

    Gives me some faith in humanity that they are at long last catching onto the fact that when you see the negative attack ads against one person back to back to back and night after night along with the very expensive mailings that there's something fishy. Especially given the fact that in one of the mailings about Goodson they included some previous extracts from newspapers and one was about how she favored "plaintiffs" in cases. Gee, why would we hate someone who sided with the common guy over a giant corporation? That was very stupid of them and the fact that trial lawyers sided with her told me that she opposes tort reform which would all but put the final nail in the coffin of class action lawsuits. It's bad enough that terms and conditions for nearly everything we do these days included a waiver of our 7th Amendment rights to sue in a court of law and even nearly 50% of employers are now requiring their employees agree to waive their 7th Amendment rights. Wonder how that would fly if corporations and employers wanted us to waive our 2nd Amendment rights?

  • Arkie2017
    May 23, 2018 at 11:20 a.m.

    I have made it a practice that when I see outside ads (dark money) with such vicious attacks against any political candidate particularly the judiciary these days (they want to control the courts now as well as government) that's the person I'll vote for. and vice versa for the one's they say are so wonderful, which is the person who'll do their bidding. When more people wake up to that fact, all the dark money negative ads will backfire and that people is democracy at work. Now we just have to stop Kobach from his cross state voter purges which he claims protects us from voter fraud, which is so small it's literally non-existent. GW Bush proved that after 7 years and around $74 million taxpayer dollars looking for it found squat. It's called diversion or mis-direction making us believe that someone millions of people are running from state to state (who can afford that?) to vote. Any rational, sane person would know that's pure BS. It's election fraud we should be concerned about. Ballot stuffing, caging, voter intimidation, etc.

  • GeneralMac
    May 23, 2018 at 12:25 p.m.

    Arkie.........why were no burials ever done on election day in Chicago ?

    Too much traffic congestion from the hearse and procession entering the cemetery
    at the same time Democrats were exiting to go vote.

  • skeptic1
    May 23, 2018 at 6:54 p.m.

    A choice between bad and worse. Goodson is a partisan deeply entangled with the Arkansas money elite and certainly not a legal scholar; Sterling on the other hand should be forced to face every parent, grandparent, and child, whose lives he destroyed but given this Hobbseian choice, he is the lessor of "evils."