A race for Chief Justice on the Arkansas Supreme Court has drawn record-breaking amounts of spending as a current Associate Justice on the court and a circuit Judge contend for the seat.
The campaigns of Associate Justice Courtney Goodson, Judge Dan Kemp and the outside spending of a conservative Washington D.C. group called the Judicial Crisis Network have collectively spent well over a million dollars.
“Dan Kemp refuses to kick this Washington, DC dark money group out of Arkansas. He should stand up to them and demand that they get their ads off of our TVs, off of our radios and out of our mailboxes,” said Goodson.
After several failed attempts to coordinate an in-person interview, Goodson agreed to send recorded responses to KUAR's emailed questions. Ads paid for by the Judicial Crisis Network have attacked Goodson. They highlight personal gifts she's received, and her siding with the six other Justices on the court to strike down the state's voter id law in 2014. Dan Kemp told KUAR in an interview that he has no connection to the Judicial Crisis Network.
“I don't have any coordination or connection with this organization,” he said. “If I did—I say if I did—I'd be proposing that they run positive ads for me because I'm running a positive campaign promoting myself—my experience, my qualifications, my values.”
In a recent Facebook post Dan Kemp did go so far as to say he “firmly” rejects the involvement of the Judicial Crisis Network in this election. In his campaign, Kemp cites his nearly-30-year record as a circuit Judge in Mountain View. Before that he practiced law for 10 years in a private practice. He also has served as a municipal judge. As a Chief Justice, he said he wants to advocate for a broad set of ethics reforms in the Judiciary.
“I'm proposing that no judge or justice in Arkansas receive any gift or any personal benefit other than the salary that they receive from the taxpayers,” he said.
The Chief Justice serves as spokesperson for the entire Judiciary and has a great deal of influence over court policies. Kemp wants to set new guidelines for recusal by judges who have potential conflicts of interest in a case:
“Obviously what I'm referring to is the case of convicted Judge Mike Maggio, who's pled guilty in federal court for accepting a bribe in the form of campaign contributions and reduced a jury verdict,” Kemp said. “That's a situation that should have never occurred. Whenever something like that does happen then we all lose. That's a black eye on the entire judiciary and the entire legal system”
(Kemp's interview with KUAR was recorded before Maggio attempted to withdraw his guilty plea in federal court.) Kemp says he would appoint a committee to look at his various ethics proposals. He also says the state is “approaching a crisis” in its public defender system. He says he'd call on the legislature to pay for more public defenders. He also wants to expand drug courts that divert first-time low-level drug offenders from the penal system into rehab programs in all 75 counties.
Despite Kemp's call for reforms, Little Rock Attorney and liberal political blogger Matt Campbell recently filed an ethic complaint against him. He says Kemp accepted a plea deal in circuit court by a daughter of family friends. Kemp has called the complaint “a cheap political stunt.”
Goodson did not say specifically what ethics reforms she’d push for, but she says she’s in favor of dark money donors disclosing themselves:
“In fact most of the folks I talk to are concerned about these anonymous, secret donor groups and nobody knows who they are or what agenda they're pushing,” she said.
Goodson said she will not “legislate from the bench” and will stick strictly to interpreting law. Goodson is serving her sixth year on the state's high court. On judicial philosophy, she calls herself a “strict constructionist,” and believes the law should only be interpreted as it was written
“That's why I'm so proud to have the support of the National Rifle Association and thousands of Arkansans who believe in upholding the Constitution.”
Goodson said her experience working with the six other justices, as well as her experience hearing death penalty appeals and constitutional appeals make her right for the Chief Justice job.
“I can hit the ground running as soon as I'm sworn in,” she said.
Goodson said she's a firm believer in judicial elections. Her opponent, Dan Kemp agrees that Judicial elections should be kept in place but says he does expect the current election system to see some changes as a result of the current campaigns.
“Either a reform of the present campaign rules for judicial races, or there's going to be a push for a constitutional amendment in the Arkansas Constitution to allow for the appointment of appellate judges,” he said.
The election for Chief Justice on the Arkansas Supreme Court is March 1st. Early voting is underway.