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VOTING GUIDE ’24: Your Arkansas Supreme Court Candidates

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VOTING GUIDE ’24: Your Arkansas Supreme Court Candidates

Feb 20, 2024 | 7:00 am ET
By Hunter Field
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VOTING GUIDE ’24: Arkansas Supreme Court Voter Cheat Sheet
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The Arkansas Supreme Court building surrounded by construction. (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)

Arkansans will vote March 5 to fill two seats on the Arkansas Supreme Court, including the chief justice position.

Chief Justice John Dan Kemp will retire at the end of his term in January, and the Position 2 seat is being filled in a special election due to the death of Associate Justice Robin Wynne last year.

The races have created an unprecedented situation where two additional vacancies could be created on the court if a sitting justice wins in both contests.

Arkansas Supreme Court races offer inflection point on sovereign immunity

Early voting begins Tuesday, Feb. 20.

The candidates for chief justice are:

The candidates for Position 2 are:

The Advocate surveyed the candidates on five questions; all but one responded.

Chief Justice

Supreme Court Justice Barbara Womack Webb

Age: 66

City of residence: Benton

Past legal experience: Supreme Court justice; Circuit judge; CEO and Chief Law Judge at Worker’s Compensation; Administrative Law judge; prosecuting attorney; 15 years in private practice

Why are you running to be chief? And why should Arkansans vote for you?

I believe the Chief Justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court needs to be principled, conservative, and experienced. I have a passion to serve the people of Arkansas and a proven record of improving the Justice system in our State.

I have over four decades of courtroom experience at all levels of the judicial system from private practice to prosecuting attorney to circuit judge to Justice on the Supreme Court. As Chief Executive Officer of a state agency, I managed over a hundred employees, and was responsible for the agency’s budget and daily operations. As Chief Administrative Law Judge, I oversaw the other administrative law judges and their caseloads. As the elected Prosecuting Attorney, I took over the office after the former Prosecutor was investigated and later convicted of running the office as a criminal enterprise. We cleaned up the office, trying hundreds of jury trials and shutting down hundreds of meth labs. As Circuit Judge, I presided over a large docket of cases following the prior Judge’s conviction and resignation for failing to pay income taxes. In each case, I
stepped forward to serve and improve the administration of justice.

I am hard-working and open-minded to looking at new ways of doing things. I approach a problem with common sense and logic. I remain calm and respectful of others even in the most difficult situations. I do not hesitate from taking on a challenge or worthy cause that other people might shy away from due to difficulty or personal consequences. I listen to all points of view and treat others as I would want to be treated.

I am guided by the words found in Micah 6:8: “What does the Lord require of thee? To seek Justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with Your God.”

Would you favor making judicial elections partisan in Arkansas? Why or why not?

I believe that Arkansans made the choice of nonpartisan elections of Judges when they passed Amendment 80 to the Arkansas Constitution. Separation of Powers clearly mean that it is the role of the Judge or Courts to interpret the law and not make new law. I do believe it is confusing to the voters who vote for judges at the same time as the partisan primaries. While I believe all persons have individual beliefs and principles, a Judge takes an Oath to enforce the Constitution and laws of this State without personal bias or prejudice. Decisions must be based on the facts and applicable law. A Judge must be fair and independent without regard to a person’s race, gender, or financial status. In my service as a Prosecuting Attorney and a Judge, I have a proven record of protecting all citizens’ rights of equal protection under the law.

Judicial ethics has been a hot topic on the federal level. Are Arkansas’ state-level judicial ethics codes and guidelines strong enough? Why or why not?

I am the only candidate in this race that was selected and served on the Arkansas Ethics Commission. I believe that we must always be vigilant in adopting and enforcing responsible ethic codes and guidelines which require disclosure and compliance in accordance with the Constitution.

Beyond deciding cases as they come, are there any other priorities, activities or initiatives the Supreme Court and chief should focus on over the next few years?

In this day, our court needs a strong leader, and the voters are excited about my plan and vision for the court’s future. My priorities as the next Chief Justice would be:

A) We must restore trust and confidence in the Judicial system by upholding the rule of law and enforcing the Constitution. With hard work, determination, teamwork, and trustworthiness, I have successfully cleaned up corruption in a broken judicial system while restoring constitutional rights to criminal defendants and to victims of crime.

B) We must modernize the Judicial system with new technology. New technology brings transparency, accountability, and efficiency with new resources, such as increased access to court interpreters and video testimony, and electronic notification of upcoming court dates.

C) We must make our courts more accessible to all citizens. I believe we must work together to find ways to provide affordable legal representation to those who cannot afford an attorney or in locations where attorneys are not available. I believe we must clean up the backlogs that keep our defendants waiting in jail for trial and victims for their day of justice.

Can the state ever be made a defendant in her own courts?

Since 1874, the Arkansas Constitution has provided that “the State of Arkansas shall never be made a defendant in any of her courts.” Art. 5, Section 20. Sovereign immunity bars suits against the State if it seeks money damages against the State, except where specifically authorized in another provision of the Constitution, or where the State has acted illegally and beyond its authority.

Jay Martin

Age: 54

City of residence: Little Rock

Past legal experience: Practicing attorney for 27 years; president of firm for 17 years, professor of Business Law, Vincennes University

Why are you running to be chief? And why should Arkansans vote for you?

The next Chief Justice must be a leader and I am the right, strong leader. Like when our current Chief Justice John Dan Kemp assumed leadership, I am not a member of the Supreme Court, and it is this outsider status that is needed in the next Chief Justice, since our current one is retiring. I am committed to making the Court work for all Arkansans, to be the people’s judge and remind Arkansans that the Courts belong to them. I will not simply defend the status quo, since changes are desperately needed. After Covid, there are a backlog of cases, we have ongoing issues with all our county courthouses having access to adequate security, technology and resources, and I will work with the other six justices and other stakeholders to make our Supreme Court the best in the United States. The next Chief Justice must also be well-versed in the law. As an attorney for 27 years, I have handled over 5,000 cases in 38 substantive areas of the law. I have the expertise to help make our legal precedents clear and concise, which is needed not only for attorneys, but for business people trying to make decisions, as well as all Arkansans.

Would you favor making judicial elections partisan in Arkansas? Why or why not?

The people of Arkansas have determined that judges should be elected and not appointed and that races should be nonpartisan. Unless the people of Arkansas change the current restriction on nonpartisanship, I will uphold the will of the people as I am bound to do, giving adherence to the rule of law.

Judicial ethics has been a hot topic on the federal level. Are Arkansas’ state-level judicial ethics codes and guidelines strong enough? Why or why not?

As Chief Justice, I will personally review all state-level judicial ethics codes and guidelines and compare them with the federal rules and the rules of other states with the goal of strengthening them. The people of Arkansas must be able to trust that judges are independent, that decisions are made based on the law and the facts before the Court, and that equality under the law for all people is the polestar of our jurisprudence. Therefore, our ethics rules must ensure that judges base decisions on these principles both in action and appearance.

Beyond deciding cases as they come, are there any other priorities, activities or initiatives the Supreme Court and chief should focus on over the next few years?

While appellate courts are not as accessible to the public as district or even circuit courts, I want to take the lead in restoring faith in the judiciary, taking the Court to the people. I want to be the Chief Ambassador from the Court to elected officials in county government and to the people, being the people’s judge. As Chief Justice, we will:

1. Make the activities of the Court and the administration of justice known to the public in planned town hall-style meetings in all 24 judicial districts.

2. Work with each county bar association to involve elementary, junior high and high school students in acts of service during law week and the furthering of “Middle School Law School,” which I began several years ago to introduce middle school students interested in becoming lawyers, access to the Supreme Court (with a tour of the Arkansas Judiciary).

3. Begin a working group with District and Circuit Judges and county officials to address courthouse safety, technology and resources for court personnel, judges and the public, particularly in underfunded counties.

Can the state ever be made a defendant in her own courts?

Sovereign immunity bars the state of Arkansas from being sued in state courts. Claims against the State are brought to the Claims Commission, which determines issues of liability on the part of the State and can make monetary awards to citizens harmed or wronged by the State. As a judge, I will uphold the rule of law so long as statutes are not unconstitutional or current precedents do not violate a constitutional principle. The idea of sovereign immunity seems at odds with the founding of our Republic and states. Sovereign Immunity came from the English common law when the sovereign was a king. In the United States, “We, the People” are the sovereign, and as such, every elected official works for the people. As Chief Justice, I will never forget who the boss is.

Supreme Court Justice Karen Baker

Age: 60

City of residence: Clinton

Past legal experience: Supreme Court justice; Court of Appeals judge; Circuit judge; Public defender in Van Buren and Searcy counties; Private practice from 1987-1995

Why are you running to be chief? And why should Arkansans vote for you?

Candidate/campaign didn’t respond.

Would you favor making judicial elections partisan in Arkansas? Why or why not?

Candidate/campaign didn’t respond.

Judicial ethics has been a hot topic on the federal level. Are Arkansas’ state-level judicial ethics codes and guidelines strong enough? Why or why not?

Candidate/campaign didn’t respond.

Beyond deciding cases as they come, are there any other priorities, activities or initiatives the Supreme Court and chief should focus on over the next few years?

Candidate/campaign didn’t respond.

Can the state ever be made a defendant in her own courts?

Candidate/campaign didn’t respond.

Supreme Court Justice Rhonda Wood

Age: 54

City of residence: Conway

Past legal experience: Supreme Court justice; Licensed attorney since 1999; Practiced in Arkansas state and federal courts; Assistant Dean Bowen School of Law

Why are you running to be chief? And why should Arkansans vote for you?

The Chief Justice position comes with immense responsibility, but also great opportunity. I believe it’s vital Arkansas have a Chief Justice with relevant judicial experience and the work ethic and commitment to maintaining the proper role of the court and upholding our constitution. I have the breadth of experience that is unparalleled. Now in my 18th year as a judge, I have six years on the trial court, two on the court of appeals, and I am in my tenth year on the Supreme Court. I have led countless judicial committees, task forces, and state-wide initiatives for the benefit of Arkansans. I am a proven leader and I can lead the judiciary as Chief Justice.

Would you favor making judicial elections partisan in Arkansas? Why or why not?

That is a decision for the voters of Arkansas. As a justice, my role is not to make the law or policy. I simply uphold it. Our constitution states judges are nonpartisan and my job is to uphold it. My personal view has no role to play.

Judicial ethics has been a hot topic on the federal level. Are Arkansas’ state-level judicial ethics codes and guidelines strong enough? Why or why not?

I am one of the few justices to sit on national boards. Arkansas has one of the strongest judicial ethics and general state ethic codes in the nation. I am proud of this. We can always continue to improve them.

Beyond deciding cases as they come, are there any other priorities, activities or initiatives the Supreme Court and chief should focus on over the next few years?

I want to continue making our courts more citizen friendly. We are here to solve problems for the public-not create them. I want our courts to simplify our rules and access for the public. I have proposals for the use of technology that will make this even more possible.

Can the state ever be made a defendant in her own courts?

I have explained this complex issue in my concurring opinion in Thurston v. League of Women Voters of Ark., 2022 Ark. 32 (Wood, J. Concurring).

Arkansas Supreme Court Associate Justice Position 2

Judge Carlton D. Jones

Age: 63

City of residence: Texarkana

Past legal experience: Circuit judge; Prosecuting attorney, Deputy prosecuting attorney; East Arkansas Legal Services.

Why are you running? And why should Arkansans vote for you?

I am running to ensure justice and to protect the Constitution in our Courts. Our State Supreme Court must guarantee that the rights of all who depend upon our courts receive a fair opportunity to be heard. Arkansans should vote for me because of my experience as a former Prosecuting Attorney and a sitting Circuit Judge. I have tried over 100 jury trials in my career. As a Circuit Judge, I regularly hear every type of case that is likely to be appealed to the Supreme Court. In deciding those cases and the issues in them, you develop a deep understanding of these issues and how to reach a resolution that is fair and appropriate under the law.

Would you favor making judicial elections partisan in Arkansas? Why or why not?

I would not be in favor of it. Judges must never been seen as participants in partisan political activity.

Judicial ethics has been a hot topic on the federal level. Are Arkansas’ state-level judicial ethics codes and guidelines strong enough? Why or why not?

The Code of Ethics and Judicial Canons under which our judges operate is strong enough. The citizens of our state should make sure that we only elect persons who are willing to follow these rules. In instances in which a violation occurs, the rules should be fairly enforced.

Beyond deciding cases as they come, are there any other priorities, activities or initiatives the Supreme Court and chief should focus on over the next few years?

As the Administrative Body for all of the Courts in the State of Arkansas, the Supreme Court must play a more fulsome role in developing and encouraging the use of technology in our courts. This would include the use of virtual platforms, (when constitutionally permissible) to secure the attendance of witnesses and legal counsel. If elected, I will advocate for the use of these platforms because, in many instances, it saves time, money and other resources for the parties and our state.

Can the state ever be made a defendant in her own courts?

The State of Arkansas shall never be made defendant in any of her courts. Ark. Const. art. V, § 20. There are some limited exceptions and the State of Arkansas may waive its immunity.

State Supreme Court Justice Courtney Hudson

Age: 51

City of residence: Fayetteville

Past legal experience: Supreme Court justice; Licensed attorney since 1999; Practiced in Arkansas state and federal courts; Assistant Dean Bowen School of Law

Why are you running? And why should Arkansans vote for you?

When I was six years old, a good judge allowed my stepfather to legally adopt me. I was given a new last name, a complete family, and a fresh start. I know firsthand the impact of a good judge, and in turn, I want to ensure that every litigant in court benefits from the goodness of the law. I think about this every time I put on my robe.

My experience serving as a Justice on the Arkansas Supreme Court for thirteen years distinguishes me from my opponent. The Rule of Law demands predictability and consistency; I can continue to provide that with my track record of upholding the Constitution and doing this very job. People deserve to know what they are getting in a Arkansas Supreme Court Justice. I am the known commodity with a common sense, balanced approach to the law. All of my opinions can be found at arcourts.gov.

Would you favor making judicial elections partisan in Arkansas? Why or why not?

Amendment 80 to the Constitution requires judges to be nonpartisan. I fully support every and all portions of the Constitution. When Arkansas voters amended our state’s Constitution in 2000, they made it clear that partisan politics have no place in the courtrooms, and I couldn’t agree more. Judges do not wear blue or red jerseys as if they are playing for a partisan team; judges wear black robes to signify the fairness and impartiality of the Rule of Law.

Judicial ethics has been a hot topic on the federal level. Are Arkansas’ state-level judicial ethics codes and guidelines strong enough? Why or why not?

The judicial ethics rules in Arkansas need an overhaul and especially in terms of enforcement. Currently, the body that oversees the discipline of judges lacks the necessary ability to enforce the rules and many infractions including those that occur during election season go unchecked.

Beyond deciding cases as they come, are there any other priorities, activities or initiatives the Supreme Court and chief should focus on over the next few years?

Juvenile justice reform is a priority. We must do a better job of reaching troubled teens who are in the court system; what we are doing now is not good enough. If we reach teens early, we can prevent them from living a lifetime of recidivism.

The Court should also continue to upgrade our technology in order to make all levels of court administration more accessible and transparent to the public.

Can the state ever be made a defendant in her own courts?

If a judgment in favor of a plaintiff would control the action of the State or subject it to liability, the suit is one against the State and is barred by sovereign immunity. A plaintiff therefore cannot recover money damages from the State. However, the Arkansas Supreme Court has held that sovereign immunity does not apply to suits that are seeking only declaratory or injunctive relief and where a state actor is acting illegally or unconstitutionally.