A Little Rock attorney and a current circuit judge who’s also served in the legislature are fighting for a vacant seat on the Arkansas Supreme Court. KUAR's Chris Hickey reports on the race between Clark Mason and Shawn Womack.
Clark Mason has been practicing law for nearly 30 years. Former Governor Mike Beebe once appointed him as a special justice to the Arkansas Supreme Court. Mason says Arkansas Supreme Court justices have a responsibility to get decisions right.
“But in the process of getting it you have to base your opinions and your conclusions solely on the facts and the law and nothing else, no political agenda,” he says.
Mason served as president of the Arkansas Trial Lawyers association in 2006. He has the highest rating by the legal directory, Martindale-Hubbell. He says those accolades indicate that he’d show fairness as a state Supreme Court justice:
“And fairness comes from the notion you have no allegiance to any particular party, any particular group, any particular large donors,” he says.
The Federal Election Commission’s website says Mason has contributed more than 23-thousand dollars to exclusively-democratic campaigns since 2001. Mason's opponent, Judge Shawn Womack, used to be a Republican lawmaker. He served four years in the state House and 6 in the state Senate. For the past seven years, he’s been a circuit judge in a 4-county region near Mountain Home. He says his political past would make him a more-informed state Supreme Court justice.
“The Supreme Court looks at and deals with issues of statutory interpretation and trying to figure out what the General Assembly meant when they passed a law, when they created a statute,”he says. “It's something that anybody can read and try to figure out, but if you've been there you have a leg up on understanding that process.”
As a legislator Womack served on the litigation oversight, desegregation oversight and the state budget committees. He chaired a task force that restructured the way district courts are organized in Arkansas.
“[We moved] them away from the old part time positions where you had the local judge who may also be practicing law and have a conflict, into a true professional third tier of our state court system. That was one of the things that I got to do that I think really made a big improvement in the state court system that we have,” he says.
Womack says he wants to see more state circuit courts make their records publicly available online. He does not see his past in the Legislative branch as detrimental to his role as a judge.
“Every judge is a lawyer an what a lawyer does is advocate,” he says. “They advocate for one side or the other or one interest or another depending on who the client is. So every attorney who's ever run for judge comes from a position of having advocated for things.”
Clark Mason's campaign highlights advocacy for “vulnerable citizens.” His law firm represents farmers, people in wrongful death suits and personal injury cases; and people in nursing home neglect cases. Mason says the public must have confidence that a judge will provide a “level playing field” for all sides in a case:
“They must be comfortable in knowing that they will have every opportunity to present their case and know it will be received in a fair and impartial manner,” he says.
A hefty majority of Mason's more than 95,000 dollars in reported campaign contributions have come from trial lawyers in Arkansas, and former Governor Beebe has endorsed him. He's also loaned his campaign 50,000 dollars.
Womack's campaign has reported at least 115,000 dollars in contributions from a mix of attorneys, corporate executives, and current and former Republican state lawmakers. A Washington DC-based political group, the Republican National Committee's Judicial Fairness Initiative, has also run about a quarter million dollars in negative ads against Mason. Lieutenant Governor Tim Griffin and Congressman Rick Crawford have endorsed Womack.