Gov. Asa Hutchinson will announce his choice to fill retiring Supreme Court Chief Justice Jim Hannah’s seat through 2016 and speculation includes a name that would be a departure from partisan coloration that has marked the court in recent times.
Among a number of names going around is that of Howard Brill, for 40 years a law school faculty member at the University of Arkansas and now the Vincent Foster University Professor of Legal Ethics and Responsibility. He’s chaired the judicial ethics advisory committee and served on occasion as a special justice on the Supreme Court. A reliable legal source said Brill announced to his class in remedies yesterday that something had come up and he wouldn’t be able to teach the class this semester and he also isn’t teaching his customary course in civil procedure.
Brill, who is advisor to the law school’s Christian Legal Society, would be a fine choice for a court that could use someone with his reputation, given the unseemly internal divisions that have roiled the court recently and spilled over into decision-making.
As governor, Hutchinson has routinely filled special justice seats with blue-ribbon Republicans, most notably in stacking the court with three Republicans to give the outcome desired by Justice Rhonda Wood in determining which justices should sit on the same-sex marriage case. This was the case on which the Supreme Court ultimately went in the tank by declining to rule.
Judges in Arkansas run as non-partisans. But it has become common practice among recent judicial candidates to run on Republican Party platforms, from circuit judge (notably in Faulkner County) on up. Wood used Mike Huckabee as a robocaller and made the rounds of Republican Party gatherings to build campaign support, sometimes joined by her friend Mike Maggio, running for Court of Appeals until he became balled up in a controversy that led to his indictment for bribery. Maggio and Wood both used campaign contribution help from former Republican Sen. Gilbert Baker (as did several others in Faulkner County judicial races) to build war chests that heavily relied on money from nursing home magnate Michael Morton.
This year, former Republican Senator and Circuit Judge Shawn Womack of Mountain Home is following the same Republican template, frequently appearing at Republican gatherings and posting photos of himself on social media with prominent Republicans. He’s running for retiring Justice Paul Danielson’s seat and is so far unopposed.
Brill would be a welcome signal that you need not always demonstrate open fealty to Republican Party politics to serve on the Arkansas Supreme Court.
Meanwhille, maybe the Stonewall Democrats could invite Womack to speak about his beliefs that homosexuality should be criminalized and that gay people should not be allowed to adopt children. A Federalist Society chapter — or one of these 10th Amendment clubs —- perhaps should also ask Womack to elaborate on his original legal theory that Arkansas stood to violate the equal protection rule of the US. Constitution if it didn’t give judges such as himself a huge pay increase in line with pay given other states.
Whoever Hutchinson appoints couldn’t run to succeed himself (or herself). Hannah retires effective Sept. 1. Shortly after, with filing in November, somebody will file to run for the office. Current Justice Courtney Goodson is widely expected to make the race. Should she win, that would give the governor her current seat to fill on an interim basis through 2018.
Some Republican like Womack might be more in line for appointment then, if court politics have cooled.
See Womack’s Twitter page for what I mean. At the Stone County Republican dinner, for example. Or, below, with Republican Sen. John Boozman and others at a Craighead County gathering. Other posts show him with Republican Congressmen Rick Crawford and Bruce Westerman, Republican state Reps. Charlene Fite and Nelda Speaks and a variety of other Republican figures, such as Hutchinson chief of staff Michael Lamoureux. Haven’t found a familiar Democrat yet.