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BRUMMETT ONLINE: A 'nonpartisan' charade

by John Brummett | February 19, 2020 at 2:54 a.m.

You should not judge women by the men they descend to marry. Your average man will usually not hold up to comparison with your average woman.

You should not hold me against Shalah. You should not hold Donald against Melania, though I struggle with that one.

And you should not hold Doyle Webb against Barbara Webb.

He's a lawyer from Benton with ethical sanction in his professional background. That did not keep him from becoming the chairman of the state Republican Party, one of the most partisan jobs in the state, even as his wife now seeks election to the state Supreme Court on a supposed "nonpartisan" basis.

Barbara comes from a southwest Little Rock family in the white-flight glory days of Little Rock McClellan in the '60s and '70s. I was in class with one of her older sisters, quite nearly the top academic achiever in the school. She would behave unassumingly, smile nicely and ace the test. She went on to a graduate degree at Vanderbilt and a career as a speech pathologist.

Barbara Webb might be all right as a state Supreme Court associate justice. It's not hard work if you have good law clerks, as most of the current justices regularly demonstrate.

Circuit judges must make original rulings singularly. Supreme Court members rule on reviews of circuit judges' original rulings, and they rule with the cover of six colleagues. I thought we had it backward a few months ago when we adjusted salaries to widen the gap between appeals' court group-thinkers and circuit court self-thinkers.

You can hide on the Supreme Court--not only in Arkansas, but in most any state and, certainly, in Clarence Thomas' case, at the U.S. Supreme Court level. Anyone could hire a couple of whiz-bang law clerks and knock out the job part-time from home.

Webb has mostly been an administrative official, not a judge, for the Workers Compensation Commission. She worked for a while as prosecuting attorney in Saline County and later for a short time as an Asa Hutchinson-appointed circuit judge to fill a vacancy.

I'm told by well-placed sources that she was slow as both prosecutor and judge, given either to deliberation with patient thoughtfulness or deliberation from a lack of the confidence that some of your whiz-bang circuit judges will show in their on-the-spot rulings.

I will not vote for Webb. The other candidate--Morgan "Chip" Welch--is a highly accomplished litigator and later a Pulaski County circuit judge toiling without hint of bias or deficiency in competence. I also will vote for him because he formerly was a plaintiffs' lawyer often fighting for the little guy.

Webb, conversely, has the backing of the lobbyist for the state Chamber of Commerce. That lobbyist committed an extraordinary indelicacy in saying that electing Webb would be cheaper for the business community than passing a constitutional amendment for tort reform to limit damages.

I say that not to engage in anything presuming to be so fancy as a formal endorsement. I say it to explain one man's reasoning in the race. And I say it to get it out of the way before turning now to the rest of the column.

And that remainder will center on the old refrain in the space about the utter nonsense of the charade of nonpartisan political campaigns for judges--as supposedly required by the rules of conduct.

Is there any doubt that Webb is the Republican in this race, and probably will win on that basis, assuming she can get the word out without, you know, being "partisan?"

Her husband is state GOP chairman, but, again, that's not her fault. Nor is it her fault that U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, a raw-meat GOP partisan, recently endorsed her in an email because, as Tommy put it, she would make conservative decisions and needed every conservative's help. The junior senator warned that the socialists were going to turn out big on the other side in this presidential year.

Do you get that? Cotton says people should vote for Webb for the Arkansas Supreme Court because the other guy is going to reap the bonanza of socialist votes in Arkansas. It is a wholly absurd and utterly fraudulent thing to say.

As a truly nonpartisan candidate in a truly nonpartisan race, Webb would say something like, "I appreciate all the support I get, including that of Senator Cotton. But I must stress that his endorsement is not something I sought, nor will I seek to exploit it. And I must also say that his possibly implied characterization of my opponent and his supporters is his and his alone."

But she's not going to say that. A campaign for judge is no time for judiciousness.

Instead, she has put Hutchinson's picture on a mailer on which she has published his favorable comment about her when he appointed her to that circuit judge vacancy in Saline County.

Chip Welch has but two hopes. One is remote; it's that his greater qualification will become widely recognized. The other is that his name will appear on the ballot with "Judge" before it while Webb's will not.

That's another nonsensical element of our practice of electing Supreme Court justices--that the candidates with "judge" before their names tend to get votes from reflex actions by uninformed voters who only think they prefer outsiders.

Please allow me--again--to tilt at this windmill. We should either stop the nonpartisan charade or, better yet, switch to a "Missouri Plan."

By that method, the governor would nominate judges from professionally vetted candidates of merit and the state Senate would confirm the nominations after hearings. Then the judges would stand alone on the ballot after their terms for re-upping, should they desire it.

John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

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