Today's Paper Latest The Article Core Values iPad Story ideas Weather Newsletters Obits Puzzles Archive
ADVERTISEMENT

OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: In the balance

by John Brummett | June 1, 2021 at 2:07 a.m.

There was an error in a news article the other day. It was this sentence: Supreme Court elections are nonpartisan.

They're so nonpartisan in Arkansas that the state Republican Party is threatening to take a 4-3 advantage on the Arkansas Supreme Court.

If you want to sue a political organization in Arkansas, it looks like it'll need to be the Democrats.

To be fair to the news side, let's be clear that, by law, judgeship elections are nonpartisan in the state. Candidates don't declare party affiliations to run in primaries.

So, the article was not incorrect in a strict technical sense. It was incorrect only in a real sense. Arkansas Supreme Court politics in Arkansas has become entirely partisan.

The state Supreme Court has seven seats. Let's look at three of them.

Barbara Webb, elected last year, is the wife of the man who, at the time she ran, was executive director of the state Republican Party. He's now a Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, for some reason.

Rhonda Wood got elected with the key backing of then-state Sen. Gilbert Baker, a former state GOP chairman who faces criminal charges for PAC activities in judicial races.

Shawn Womack is a former Republican state legislator, and not just any former Republican state legislator, but a highly partisan and combative one.

So, now, Associate Justice Robin Wynne is up for re-election and has drawn a likely opponent, Faulkner-Van Buren County District Judge Chris Carnahan, who seems to be angling to run.

Carnahan is a former executive director of the state GOP who owes his current judgeship, and one before, to appointment to vacancies by Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson.

A Carnahan win would make it 4-to-3 for the GOP, including one former state director and the wife of another. Who knew that partisan political work provided a background in judicial temperament?

That is not to say that the remaining justices are Democrats. It's unclear in a couple of cases, which is how it maybe ought to be in a nonpartisan system.

But then there is this factor: Wynne, of Fordyce, formerly was a Democratic state representative, something I'm thinking Carnahan will want to mention should he and Wynne wind up in a head-to-head and the Trumpers will need to know which judge candidate is the most Trumpy.

In our state's nonpartisan system, the word plainly has gone out in this Republican-mad state to vote for the candidate who can call the most names most comfortably at the county Republican meeting.

It's such a fine way to pick a judge.

Once I favored having the governor nominate Supreme Court judges based on interested persons deemed acceptable by a bar screening committee. But now I'd have to worry that Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders would nominate Rudy Giuliani.

There is another way that Republicans can get the signal about how to vote in a Supreme Court race. It's from attack ads on the non-Republican candidate paid for by mystery money the darkness of which Republican legislators have defended by resisting the intended light-shining disclosure legislation filed by state Sen. Clarke Tucker of Little Rock.

"Dark money" means that spent by groups with fancy names but no real identity on attack ads on candidates running against the candidates the secret assassins favor.

Anyone who has been a serious, law-applying appellate judge will have something in his or her record that can be exploited by secret benefactors of the other candidate to send lethal signals of "judicial activism" and "liberalism." A system of judicial politics that is political and partisan will not tolerate a judge going objectively by the law.

Dark money usually gets spent on character assassinations of the non-Republicans or non-overt Republicans in favor of candidates spawned out of Republican state headquarters.

But not always. Eight years ago, the aforementioned Robin Wynne, the former Democratic state representative now possibly to be opposed by former Republican employee Carnahan, benefited when a dark-money television spot attacked his opponent, Tim Cullen, for some court-appointed appellate brief he wrote for a bad guy.

It remains unclear why some distant, funny-named outfit calling itself a law-enforcement PAC would care about Wynne versus Cullen. There is some thought that this was a sinister right-wing attempt to test and demonstrate what dark money can do. Out of it we got collateral damage for one candidate and collateral court membership for the other.

Some people--and I seem to remember being one of them--thought Wynne should have distanced himself from such an attack.

But he didn't. Maybe one shouldn't look a gift-assassin in the mouth.

Anyway, since what goes around is said to come around, Wynne may be in line to experience the other side. He now has eight years of judicial actions for GOP researchers to mine.

The 4-3 Republican takeover of the nonpartisan Arkansas Supreme Court hangs in the balance.


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

ADVERTISEMENT

Sponsor Content

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT