Supreme Court Race Pits Incumbent Against Judge, Head DHS Lawyer

May 21, 2018

Primary elections are set for May 22, the same day as the deciding nonpartisan judicial election for Arkansas Supreme Court Associate Justice. Three candidates, including the incumbent, are vying for the seat.

Justice Courtney Goodson was elected in 2010, and is seeking another eight-year term on the bench. Arkansas Department of Human Services Chief Legal Counsel David Sterling and state Appeals Court Judge Kenneth Hixson are running to unseat Goodson. 

While all three lament the fact that the influence of outside political groups on the race has dominated the local news cycle, the candidates are elaborating their individual styles of jurisprudence in an effort to inform the voting public.

Sterling, who ran unsuccessfully for Attorney General in 2014, told KUAR News he’ll bring a more traditional legal style to the Court: a philosophy he calls ‘judicial conservatism.”

“Basically, judicial conservatism to me is seventh grade civics class,” Sterling said. “It’s an appreciation that there are three separate but equal branches of our government, where the legislative branch actually passes the laws, the executive branch enforces those laws, and the judicial branch interprets those laws and applies the law to the facts and circumstance of each unique case.”

Sterling cautions against the judicial branch acting as legislators, and says he will carry out the Constitution in its current form, but through the lens of the original drafters.

Judge Kenneth Hixson takes a similar approach to law, though he believes the term “originalist” is too vague to describe his relationship to the Constitution. Hixson told KUAR he views the Constitution as an enduring document, changing with the laws and the times. 

“Society changes from liberal to conservative and that pendulum goes back and forth. And while that is happening, the legislatures change, and because the legislatures change, the laws change,” Hixson said. “But even though the law is changing, the bedrock principle that you look at the constitutionality of these changing laws, is that you look at it as the founding fathers would look at it.”

Justice Courtney Goodson, first elected to the Court in 2018, says now isn’t the time to change the composition of the Court, citing the Court’s turnaround time of roughly three weeks under a caseload of 962 cases last year. In addition, Goodson said, the Court handled a flurry of emergency appeals and related casework during the March 2017 proposed executions of eight inmates in 11 days.

“[The] Arkansas Supreme Court works incredibly well, and I’m part of that. I’m one of seven members,” Goodson said. “And what this means, is that our case clearance rate is at a high. So I don’t think now is the time to change the membership of the Court. I think that we’re productive and we are doing our job, possibly better than ever.”

Early voting continues in Arkansas until May 21 at 5 p.m., with the polls open May 22 from 7:30 a.m. until 7:30 p.m.