Arkansas Supreme Court justices were sworn in today and new Chief Justice Dan Kemp, after making a bow to cooperation among members, sent a clear message that he intended to be in charge of every administrative function at the court.

He declared that he would be overseer of various Supreme Court offices and committees — jobs that had been parceled out among other justices. Significantly, that includes control that was taken from the late Chief Justice Jim Hannah by a rump group of justices, some of whom remain on the court.

There was good reason for Kemp to talk about civil relationships.

Kemp won office by defeating a continuing justice, Courtney Goodson. The campaign was marked by tough dark money advertising against Goodson. Kemp succeeds the late Chief Justice Hannah, whose time was roiled by internal court bickering, including an effective takeover of what had customarily been the chief justice’s administrative function in a majority vote of those who were then associate justices.


The legal community has been whispering about the future under Kemp. Will he be able to reassert more of the past administrative power accorded the chief? He clearly thinks so.

Remaining to be seen in the days ahead is the reaction by the other six justices to his strong entry. They include justice who were resistant to control under Hannah and perhaps recently. Howard Brill, who completed Hannah’s term by appointment, left office with a goodbye that mentioned by name only the late Justice Donald Corbin and retiring Justice Paul Danielson.


In his prepared remarks, Kemp noted the warm friendship on the U.S. Supreme Court between the late Justice Antonin Scalia and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. “The justices understood that there is no place for enmity on a multimember court,” he said. He praised a number of former judges and said the other current  court members — Justices Karen Baker, Jo Hart, Rhonda Wood, Robin Wynne and newly elected Shawn Womack, who was sworn in today — had been “courteous and professional” and he thanked them for a warm welcome.

But he quoted former Chief Justice Jack Holt, who swore Kemp  in, about the importance of the chief’s ultimate control because he gets credit when things go well and blame when things go badly. “Jack said the buck stops with the chief justice.”

“For the benefit of the public,” he said, he cited the statute that says the chief justice is “directly responsible for the efficient operation of  the judicial branch.” He noted that the Arkansas Constitution “confers superintending control” of all courts to the Supreme Court and “these functions shall be administered by the chief justice.” He added, “I look forward to serving in that capacity.”

To that end, Kemp announced “in the spirit of transparency” that he would “assume normal administrative duties, which include serving as supervisor” to this list of offices:


Administrative Office of the Courts, Supreme Court clerk’s office (the rump group of justices blocked Hannah’s choice as court clerk and also overrode him on some other matters), the Criminal Justice Coordinator’s Office, the Appellate Review attorney, the Supreme Court reporter of decisions office, the Supreme Court police and the Arkansas Judiciary website personnel.He also designated himself liaison to committees on model criminal jury instructions, criminal practice, professional conduct and automation.

Kemp will supplant other justices who served as liaison to these offices and committees and he thanked them for their service. He commented: “The people of this state elected me to serve as chief justice. They expect me to lead the court and I intend to do so.”

I wish I could have studied the faces of the other justices as the speech was being delivered. Several of them, you may remember, sat in a row to stare down then-Attorney General Dustin McDaniel at a bar association meeting after he’d criticized the court for outcome-oriented decisions.

On other matters, Kemp said  said he’d work with Gov. Asa Hutchinson to get more financial help for “overworked” public defenders. But he also said criminal laws must be enforced and “Arkansans deserve the peace of mind to go about pursuing the American dream without fear of crime.” He didn’t mention recent discussions about prisons overstocked with people who could be returned to the community.

He said he hoped to work with drug, veterans and juvenile courts in “creative” ways. He hoped drug courts are expanded and he said statistics show “we are putting too many juveniles into a prison pipeline.”

He said he’d establish a strategic planning program to improve court access. Advances in technology calls for new approaches, he said.

Kemp got right to work by the way, also asserting that henceforth he’d be editor of the court web page. (There’s a bit of a backstory on this about some website photo direction back during the dark final days of Justice Hannah’s tenure.) See announcement:

Here’s a link to his full speech.