Legislator Floats Proposal For Arkansas Supreme Court Appointment System

Feb 10, 2017

Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson (R-Benton) presents SJR4 to the Senate Committe on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Thursday.
Credit Chris Hickey / KUAR News

One lawmaker’s proposal to establish an appointment system for Arkansas Supreme Court justices appears, by his own admission, to be going nowhere.

Republican State Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson’s proposed constitutional amendment, SJR4, calls for a commission that would suggest five names to the Governor for a possible appointment to a 14-year term on the Arkansas Supreme Court. The Senate would have to approve any nominee.

The resolution is competing with more than 20 other proposals that could potentially be one of three the Legislature refers to Arkansas voters in the next general election. The proposed constitutional amendment would not alter the electoral system for positions on other lower courts in the state.

Hutchinson presented the proposal in the Senate Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs. The lawmaker from Benton argued that current restrictions on what judicial candidates in Arkansas can talk about during their campaigns, coupled with the rise of distorting messages and ads from outside groups, have left the average Arkansas voter confused and uninformed.

“The people have a right to elect [justices]. That’s a wonderful thing,” Hutchinson said. “That should not be changed, unless the people have no information on which to make a decision. And currently, judges…they’re not allowed to take positions on any issue that may appear before them. They don’t run on the party label. Even if you were the most informed voter and you went to the hearings and went to forums and asked questions, I would tell you that you still have nothing to base an informed decision on.”

Several lawmakers on the committee pushed back at the idea of stripping voters of the power to elect justices.

“I’ve not had one person—I’ve asked a lot of people—that want to give up their right to vote. They do not,” said Republican Sen. Terry Rice of Waldron.

“I’ve talked to voters as well and when you explain the situation they realize, ‘you know what I don’t know who I’m voting for,’” Hutchinson replied. “A lot of times they don’t even vote in judicial elections because they don’t know anything about either candidate.”

Republican Sen. Missy Irvin of Mountain View also voiced opposition to the idea of an appointment system. She said the influence of outside money in judicial elections should not be viewed as a detriment to the credibility of the race.

“I would argue that anybody who runs for office—that happens to a lot of people’s cases who are candidates,” said Irvin, remarking that ads run by outside groups during election campaigns were a form of freedom of speech.

Hutchinson acknowledged after the meeting that his idea for a State Supreme Court appointment system was unlikely to make it far.

“I’m putting forth the effort, but it’s still not going to happen. The effort’s going to happen,” he told reporters. 

Hutchinson says his resolution would spur substantive debates on the merits of Supreme Court appointments during gubernatorial campaigns, similar to what occurs on the federal level during presidential campaigns.

At issue for Hutchinson is so-called “dark-money” increasingly buying ad time during election cycles for the state high court. The most recent campaigns for the State Supreme Court Chief Justice seat and an Associate Justice seat drew a record amount of spending. Outside non-profits like the Washington, D.C.-based Judicial Crisis Network spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in television ad time in support of now-Chief Justice Dan Kemp over his opponent, Associate Justice Courtney Goodson.

Sen. Hutchinson said after the committee hearing that if his appointment system proposal does not advance, state lawmakers should consider proposals that would inform voters of the ways outside groups influence elections.

“At the very least, tell the voters of Arkansas who’s spending one and a half million dollars to elect somebody. I think every voter should demand that,” he said.

A bill sponsored by Democratic State Rep. Clarke Tucker of Little Rock would require non-profits to disclose the sources of money used in “electioneering communications.” But that bill, HB1005, has yet to receive a hearing in this year's session.

This article was edited at 12:03pm on 2/10/17.