An Arkansas Bar Association committee has recommended amending the Constitution of Arkansas to provide for appointment, rather than election, of members of the Arkansas Supreme Court.
The bar’s House of Delegates will decide whether to adopt the report at a convention later this month.
CORRECTION: My original report said all appellate judges were recommended for appointment. The committee still favors election of members of the state Court of Appeals, as well as circuit judges.
A popular vote would be required for adoption. Legislators are expected to try again in 2017 to get the legislature to add such a measure to the 2018 election ballot. Gov. Asa Hutchinson has indicated warmth toward appointment (and not just because the governor would take power now left to voters.)
I think Arkansans like electing judges and are less concerned than they should be about the impact of dark money — anonymously financed hit campaigns on candidates that are now a standard feature of judicial elections.
The Bar committee recommended a nominating commission to send recommendations to the governor. Hard to imagine the governor would favor a proposal that limits his choices.
On other subjects:
* The committee recommended against an automatic recusal rule based on campaign contributions. We’ve not yet had a case analagous to the effective purchase of a West Virginia judge by coal money, but ill appearances do pop up. I happened to notice yesterday that Justice Rhonda Wood wrote the majority opinion in a nursing home case. She received $70,000 of some $150,000 she initially raised for an uncontested race from nursing homes, mostly owned by Michael Morton. The decision yesterday went against the nursing home (not owned by Morton), but it was on a narrow contract question, not the much larger question pending in Arkansas of whether damaged nursing home patients have any alternative when they’ve agreed to arbitrate grievances and the specified arbitrator is no longer in business.
* If elections do continue, to mitigate the impact of dark money, the committee recommended “legislative reforms should be supported, along with appropriate improvements to the rules governing professional conduct.” Democratic Rep. Clarke Tucker has been working without success to win Republican majority approval of a simple statutory change that would require disclosure of sources of money spent to influence a judicial election. This disclosure is among several proposals the committee made.
* Rules of judicial conduct would be stiffened to, among others, prevent partisan coloration in judicial campaigns. Some candidates for judge (Rhonda Wood, to name one, in using Mike Huckabee in robocalls) have relied heavily on implicit connections to the Republican Party.
* The committee recommends explicitly allowing judicial candidates to know who contributed to their campaign. Anybody who thinks they don’t now are deluded. Many judicial candidates (Rhonda Wood, to name one) sign their own campaign contribution reports. Wood, to name one, has spoken about — and defended contributions — she received.
I predict most of this talk of reform goes nowhere. I hope I’m wrong.