Forum’s focus on judicial hopefuls

Great Seal of Arkansas in a court room in Washington County. Thursday, June 21, 2018,

Candidates for the Arkansas Supreme Court and Court of Appeals answered questions from voters Saturday afternoon in a forum organized by National Pan-Hellenic Council alumni ahead of the March 5 nonpartisan elections for judicial positions.

Saturday's forum featured three candidates for the Court of Appeals' District, 6 Position 1, two for the Supreme Court's Position 2 and three for chief justice of the Supreme Court.

It was the second of two forums organized by the Little Rock alumnae chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. at the Delta Presents Outreach Foundation in Little Rock.

The first, on Thursday evening, gave voters a chance to get to know candidates for Little Rock District Court, the Pulaski County District Court and the 6th Judicial Circuit Court, encompassing Perry and Pulaski counties.

All candidates were given a minute for their introduction and then answered both prepared and audience-submitted questions about their history, character and platform.

Supreme Court Justices Karen Baker, Rhonda Wood and Barbara Webb and Little Rock attorney Jay Martin are running for chief justice of the Supreme Court, although Baker was not present for Saturday's forum.

Circuit Judge Carlton Jones and Justice Courtney Hudson are running for the Supreme Court's Position 2, the position vacated by Robin Wynne, who died in June at age 70.

Circuit Judge Casey Tucker and attorneys Pam Hathaway and Molly McNulty are vying for District 6 Position 1 on the Arkansas Court of Appeals.

Martin is the only chief justice candidate who is not a sitting justice, but that is not a requirement for the position, the moderators said. By comparison, Wood has served as a judge for 17 years and is in her second term on the Supreme Court, while Webb was elected in 2019 and sworn in in 2020 after serving as a judge since 2005.

Wood and Webb both pointed to their history in the judicial field as their bona fides, while Martin, who is also a pastor, suggested his position as an outsider is a selling point.

He has an "attorney's mind and a pastor's heart," Martin told the audience, and suggested that his time working with people on the streets of Little Rock to get their records expunged or serving at legal clinics was as valuable as time on the court.

Webb touted her time with Arkansas Workers' Compensation Commission, where she served as a special commissioner, CEO and chief administrative law judge, as valuable leadership experience that would make her an ideal candidate for chief justice.

Wood, who had a written list of all her past Supreme Court committee appointments, focused on her work history, and hardworking character.

"That is judicial leadership and judicial leadership at the Supreme Court level," Wood said of the list she'd compiled.

All three candidates said they were greatly concerned with the lack of judges and staff available to serve in specialty courts like juvenile and drug courts. Wood called the shortage a critical issue for her, while Webb emphasized the importance of these specialty courts in addressing mental health and substance abuse problems in the community.

Jones told the audience his time providing legal services in the Arkansas Delta and working as a judge in southwest Arkansas gives him the proper experience and perspective to ensure that the Supreme Court applies the law to all residents equally.

"I bring a new, fresh opinion to the court," Jones said.

Hudson is the justice for the high court's Position 3, but said she felt called to run for her late colleague Wynne's vacant spot. She sees her role on the court as being able to "look the establishment in the eye" and say "no" when the popular choice is not the right choice, she said.

Hudson has said that moving to Wynne's spot would allow her to serve longer before she retires.

If Hudson wins, Gov. Sarah Huckabee-Sanders will nominate a judge to fill her vacant position, the moderators told the audience members.

Both Jones and Hudson stressed the duty they have to the U.S. and Arkansas constitutions that go along with their important role.

"My North Star is the constitution," Hudson said.

Like Hudson, Jones acknowledged that his rulings as justice may not always be popular, or ones he agrees with.

"I did not swear to do things only that I like to do. I swore to uphold the Constitution of Arkansas," Jones said.

Both of them also said they approved of the age limits placed on judges and affirmed under Landers v. Stone in 2016, in which Hudson wrote the ruling.

In the race for the Court of Appeals position, much of the three candidates' time was spent talking about the unique position the court occupies.

Their opinions may not be front page news, McNulty said, but their decisions affect the lives of everyday Arkansans.

The somewhat cloistered court is "the workhorse of the appellate system," Hathaway said.

Tucker, who has mostly ruled on domestic and probate cases in her three years on the circuit court, said she is ready to step up to the appeals court and use her hard-earned experience there.

Hathaway touted her broad institutional knowledge, saying the appeals court is "the highest and best use of my skills."

"I'm a nerd about loving the law," Hathaway said.

McNulty said her knowledge of the appellate court and devotion to upholding the constitution and the rule of law made her the best candidate.

A question about how the candidates for the appeals court and chief justice interacted with their Black colleagues in the legal profession appeared to put some of them on edge. All the candidates at Saturday's forum except Jones are white.

Several pointed to friendships and working relationships with Marion Humphrey and his son or Judge Tjuana Byrd Manning, who was a moderator at the forum, or other Black people in the state's legal field.

"You hate to name drop in that situation," Tucker said, drawing friendly laughs from the crowd.

Saturday's forum was the first organized by the Pan-Hellenic alumni, said Circuit Judge LaTonya Honorable, who is also the co-chair of the Delta Sigma Theta alumnae chapter's social action committee.

The alumnae group plans to continue to organize voter information events in January ahead of the election and put out resources like the voter guide it made for the judicial candidates.

People don't always understand the landscape of lesser-known races like the judicial elections, and the alumnae want to be a resource for the community, Honorable said.

On Thursday, the three contenders for the Sixth Judicial Circuit' Division 17 judgeship -- Brent Eubanks, Robert Cortinez II and Brooke-Augusta Ware -- attended the forum. Also present were uncontested circuit judge candidates Little Rock District Judge Melanie Martin and Circuit Judge Karen Whatley.

The contenders for Pulaski County District Court, Circuit Judge Chip Welch and Beth Burgess, were present Thursday, as were the Little Rock traffic division candidates Robert Tellez and Circuit Judge Herb Wright and Little Rock criminal division contenders, deputy prosecutor Jill Kamps and Circuit Judge Mackie Pierce.

Voter registration for the judicial election ends Feb. 5. Early voting runs from Feb. 20 to March 4 ahead of the March 5 election.