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

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.

[ELECTIONS COVERAGE: Find all results + stories]

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

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  • skeptic1
    May 24, 2018 at 9:16 a.m.

    A pox on both houses, this is a very sad commentary on our highest courts.

  • drs01
    May 24, 2018 at 10:08 a.m.

    Character should decide the next Supreme. One candidate had a long standing (or bedding) affair with what turned out to be her wealthy lawyer second husband. He showered her with gifts and trips. His business and his associates could have cases before the Supreme Court. Also he has considerable influence over his new wife. We've already seen the scope and depth of that influence when the judge husband of one of his employees made a ruling favoring Mrs. Goodson. Is this mud, or just exposing TRUTH? There are enough flies around to suggest a stink.
    The only criticism I've read/heard about the other candidate is he's an NRA member;and he's a strong family man. He has no judge experience. Logic and character should decide this election, if only we had enough voters who could.

  • Bocepheus
    May 24, 2018 at 10:11 a.m.

    80% of the Arkansas Bar Association are liberal Democrats. They are preserving their swamp of trial lawyer/local judge, good ole boy network by backing Goodson and running interference for her. The majority of Arkansas voters are conservative, but people like Hilliard want to silence their voice with a disgusting, phony, holier than thou attitude. Ask yourself if Republicans could get a fair shake in Chris Piazza’s court in Little Rock? Or Doug Martin’s court in Fayetteville?

  • GeneralMac
    May 24, 2018 at 10:19 a.m.

    ..." No one really knows where Hixson's votes will go "..

    THAT will be the deciding factor as neither Goodson nor Sterling got close to a majority.

  • GeneralMac
    May 24, 2018 at 10:31 a.m.

    Years back the political power belonged to white men.
    Many times there was corruption.

    Liberals would state........." if only we elected women"........" if only we elected minotities"..........."if only we elected gays,lesbians and trannies "

    All of the above have now been elected and all we have learned is that sleaze and corruption can contaminate all the mentioned above once elected.

    "if only we elected" was a phrase that never solved the problem of sleaze or corruption.

  • TimberTopper
    May 24, 2018 at 10:54 a.m.

    01, you might want to check out the elected officials that got the kickbacks from the college, and see if they were NRA members, and strong family men, and men of good logic and character, prior to getting caught stealing, before you decide as well. Bet they were pillars of the community, as well as walking at the foot of the cross, some would say.

  • RBear
    May 24, 2018 at 11:34 a.m.

    drs do you even know what the purpose of the Supreme Court is in Arkansas? It's an appellate court. One of the best sources I got to help educate you on the differences came from the State of Indiana. "Appellate courts focus on questions of law, NOT on questions of facts like the trial courts. The appellate judges want to know whether the law was applied accurately."
    That simple point shows why Sterling's lack of experience should be a red flag with voters regarding the AR Supreme Court. Sterling would walk onto that bench with no real clue on the process or how he should be looking at cases that end up in the AR Supreme Court. It makes him the absolute worst candidate for this job. The ONLY way he ended up in the runoff was due to the dark money ads, because his legal credentials pretty much turned him into a last place finisher.
    Do I like Goodson? Heck no, but Hixson was battling negative ads and an incumbent. Goodson is the lesser of the two.