Circuit Judge John Dan Kemp of Mountain View has been mentioned in recent days as a potential candidate for chief justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court, a seat open by retirement in 2016. Associate Justice Courtney Goodson is the only announced candidate.
I called him. He confirmed that he is considering the race, but hasn’t made a decision yet. He did say, however, that his potential entry had prompted some interest from as far away as New York. It’s telling about where judicial elections are heading in Arkansas.
I heard about Kemp’s interest following a recent judicial conference. He is a natural candidate — a circuit judge since 1987 with municipal judge experience before that. He presides over criminal cases in several counties.
The judge said he’d already gotten inquiries on his record from out of state. I asked to see them. They are available as a matter of public record. Turns it he received two FOI requests from a New York investigative firm.
Derrick Wetherell of Brewster, N.Y., asked to see and copy all records pertaining to plea bargains, parole recommendations, correspondence with the parole board, copies of leniency requests and opinions on murder, rape and gun violation convictions. In another letter, he asked for all budget records and expenses, including travel.
Wetherell overlooked a technicality in invoking the FOI. You must be a citizen of Arkansas for the law to apply. He also sought many records from the judge’s office that are kept by others, chiefly in the circuit clerk’s office.
I called Wetherell. He said he was working for private counsel and information about that was “privileged.”
Wetherell’s website identifies him as fraud examiner who does private investigation. His clients have included law firms and political organizations that needed “top-notch research and analysis.”
A private eye at work on a mere rumor of a candidacy? Shades of the last round of judicial elections, when dark money — its source never identified — poured into ads aimed at tearing down the candidacy of Tim Cullen, defeated for a seat on the court by Justice Robin Wynne. Though no evidence of a connection has ever been offered, some suspicion has fallen on Courtney Goodson’s husband, John, a powerful lawyer/lobbyist and member of the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees. He’s contributed his own money and people with whom he’s been associated on class action lawsuits have contributed to several judicial races, including those of Justices Wynne, Karen Baker, Jo Hart and Rhonda Wood.
I sent a note to John Goodson asking if he knew anything about Wetherell. No response.
Cullen’s work as a legal defense attorney was used against him. Right to counsel is a nicety given little attention in 30-second TV ads. In three decades of Kemp’s criminal work, it’s hard to imagine you couldn’t find a probationer who returned to crime or a victim aggrieved by a case outcome in Kemp’s court. It seems a solid bet that if Kemp does run, some dramatic retelling will find its way to a TV screen near you. Without any constitutional niceties attached.
Courtney Goodson had the political advantage of scant experience — mainly as an appellate judge’s law clerk — before joining the court. Her Supreme Court claim to fame so far is sitting on an opinion in the same-sex marriage case long enough that the court was able to dodge issuing a ruling.
Kemp declined to comment on the investigative work.