This fall's Arkansas Supreme Court runoff will include a candidate favored by Washington, D.C.-based groups that spent more than $1 million on TV ads on the race.
His opponent in the Nov. 6 runoff is an incumbent who has now twice seen out-of-state groups work to derail her political campaigns.
To observers of the court, the impending race between Justice Courtney Goodson and attorney David Sterling promises to be long, bruising and potentially one of the most expensive judicial races in Arkansas history.
"What it portends for the fall is a lot of sewer money," said Tony Hilliard, the president of the Arkansas Bar Association.
Ahead of what proved to be the first round of voting, Arkansas airwaves were flooded with attack ads against Goodson and Tuesday's third-place finisher, Court of Appeals Judge Kenneth Hixson. Those ads were funded by the Judicial Crisis Network, a conservative group based in the nation's capital that does not disclose its donors.
Another Washington group, the Republican State Leadership Committee, ran ads and sent out mailers touting Sterling as the "conservative leader Arkansas needs." The GOP-affiliated group does disclose its donors, which include large corporate contributors like Walmart.
Both groups have spent large sums of money in Arkansas Supreme Court races before. The Judicial Crisis Network spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to oppose Goodson in her unsuccessful 2016 bid for chief justice, another position on the court.
"I would expect them to double-down in September, October and November on their support of Sterling and their opposition to Goodson," said Joshua Silverstein, a professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock's William H. Bowen School of Law. "No one really knows where Hixson's votes will go."
Arkansas' rules on judicial ethics strictly prohibit Hixson, who remains a Court of Appeals judge, from making any endorsements in the runoff.
Jay Barth, a political science professor at Hendrix College, said Goodson likely benefited from name recognition and having her title of "justice" printed on ballots, and that she will continue to get a boost from both in November. What is less clear from the results, he said, is how voters are reacting to spending on attack ads by outside groups.
"In many ways, the Judicial Crisis Network kind of has its playbook in place for that race," Barth said. "The question is, is this backlash against dark money real or not?"
Speaking to a reporter on election night, Sterling, chief attorney for the state Department of Human Services, said he would focus on his own message while campaigning in the runoff. He repeated his assertions that he does not know what outside groups are planning. (Campaign finance laws prevent candidates from coordinating with outside groups.)
"It's not going to be anything I have to do with," he said of the prospect of more attack ads.
Goodson, on the other hand, said she was prepared.
Voters "have spoken with clarity that our courts are not for sale," Goodson said Tuesday night.
In both her 2016 race and in the current cycle, the Judicial Crisis Network painted Goodson as a "insider" and latched onto gifts and donations she accepted from trial attorneys. Goodson has said she's recused from all cases that involve her benefactors.
Also continuing past Tuesday's elections are three lawsuits Goodson has filed against broadcasters in Little Rock, Fort Smith and Fayetteville that aired the ads. The justice's attorneys claim the ads are defamatory, but the broadcasters have pushed back, arguing they are protected free speech.
As the polls closed Tuesday evening, two companies, Comcast and Tegna, announced their intention to appeal to the state Supreme Court a Pulaski County circuit judge's order to halt the ads from airing in central Arkansas over the final weekend of the campaign. Even though the ads stopped airing all over the state once the election was over, attorneys argue they still have a case to make before the justices.
"Tegna is very concerned about free speech and the implication of free speech by the injunction," said John Tull, an attorney for Tegna and the Arkansas Press Association.
Neither the Republican State Leadership Committee nor the Judicial Crisis Network were named as defendants in Goodson's lawsuits, and neither group indicated Wednesday that they planned to back out of their campaigning.
In a statement released Wednesday, the committee congratulated Sterling on advancing to the runoff, adding that the race will "certainly be critical in November." Similarly, the Judicial Crisis Network released its own statement saying that "Justice Goodson cannot run from her record of pay increases, favoritism and residing in a swamp of conflicts of interest."
Spokesmen for both groups declined to discuss plans for the runoff.
But legal groups, including the Bar Association, are again raising questions about the effect of outside spending in Arkansas' judicial races.
"For a political party to be involved [in nonpartisan races] does nothing but to dirty the water," Hilliard said.
After "dark money" and spending by the candidates themselves drew headlines in 2016, the Bar Association endorsed the idea of appointing, rather than electing, Supreme Court judges. However, the group fell short of approving its own specific proposal to change the system of choosing judges, and lawmakers declined to take action during the subsequent legislative session.
Hilliard said the bar is likely to begin new discussions about proposals it can take in front of lawmakers next year.
As for November, Barth, the political scientist, said it remains to be seen whether the candidates will spend bigger in the fall after raising relatively paltry sums in the spring compared with outside groups.
Goodson, who lent her campaign $660,700 en route to spending more than $1 million in her 2016 chief justice campaign, reported raising just $60,415 as of her most recent campaign finance report. Sterling reported raising $64,882.
"The big question is, is she in a position to put personal money in the race as she has in the past?" Barth said.
Neither Goodson nor Sterling reported spending their own campaign money on TV ads -- which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars -- in the lead-up to Tuesday's election.
Metro on 05/24/2018
Print Headline: Court race forecast: Mud, money