2 races, including crowded chief justice campaign, could push Arkansas court further to the right

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Two races for the Arkansas Supreme Court, including a busy campaign for chief justice, could push a court targeted by outside conservative groups even further to the right.

Tuesday’s nonpartisan elections for chief justice and another seat could have major implications for cases pending before the court or likely to be heard in the coming year, including abortion rights and an ongoing battle for control of the prison system of the state.

Three of the court’s sitting justices — Karen Baker, Barbara Webb and Rhonda Wood — are competing against former state Rep. Jay Martin for the nomination of chief justice. The four are candidates to succeed current Chief Justice Dan Kemp, who is not seeking re-election. If none of the four receive a majority of votes, the top two will advance to a runoff in the November elections.

Judge Courtney Hudson will face off against Circuit Judge Carlton Jones for the seat currently occupied by Cody Hiland, who was appointed by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Hiland, a former federal prosecutor and state GOP chairman, was appointed to the court after the death of Judge Robin Wynne.

Both lawsuits could increase Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ influence on the court, months after she gave the court a conservative majority.

“I know it will have the same effect on our state as it has on our country,” Sanders said of Hiland’s nomination. The Republican governor did not endorse any candidates in either race in Tuesday’s vote.

The court could play an important role in abortion rights as a campaign is underway to put a measure on the November ballot that would roll back the state’s ban on abortion. The court has also been asked to intervene in a legal battle over the extent to which Sanders has control over the state’s prisons.

The 2016 race for chief justice was highlighted by outside conservative groups who spent heavily on caustic TV ads and mailers. These groups played no role in this year’s race, but it remains dominated by candidates who appeal to conservatives.

Two of the candidates for chief justice have ties to the Republican Party: Webb is married to a former GOP state chairman and Wood was appointed a judge by Sanders’ father, former Gov. Mike Huckabee. Martin ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for governor two years ago, touting his opposition to abortion.

Baker won reelection in 2022, defeating a former Republican lawmaker who touted himself as a constitutional conservative. She did not respond to requests for an interview, but said at a recent forum that improving the licensure of lawyers is one of the areas she would like to focus on.

Webb, who was first elected to the court in 2020, touts herself as the only candidate with “hands-on management experience,” including her time as chief administrative law judge for the Workers Compensation Commission. She has also served as a prosecutor and circuit judge.

“I have always tried to improve the administration of justice,” Webb told The Associated Press in an interview.

Wood, who was first elected to the court in 2014 and re-elected in 2022, said she believed she had unique experience to advance the state’s judiciary.

“I just see the tremendous need in the state for a chief who can see all the moving parts and seize the opportunity with everything that’s going on in the world,” she said.

Martin, who served two terms in the State House, said he is concerned about the independence of the justice system.

“People need to know that they are going to base their decisions on the facts and the law,” he said.

If any of the sitting justices win the race, they would be the first woman elected to the post. Betty Dickey was appointed chief justice by Huckabee in 2004. Women occupy four of the seven seats on the court.

Hudson, who was first elected to the court in 2010, is seeking a position other than hers and so would continue to serve on the court if she loses Tuesday’s race. Her bid for position two would allow her to serve additional time on the court due to judicial retirement rules.

“This is about working longer, serving the people longer, instead of sitting back and receiving a retirement check,” she said.

Jones, a circuit judge from Texarkana, would become the court’s first elected Black judge and the first statewide elected official since Reconstruction if he wins Tuesday’s race.

Jones said he has no criticism of Hudson and thinks she has done well on the field.

“Nothing about this race will change the fact that she will still be a judge on the Arkansas Supreme Court on March 6, 2024, no matter what,” Jones said.