The Senate State Agencies committee this morning heard from the sponsors of two proposed amendments to the Arkansas Constitution: A bipartisan measure from Sens. Jim Hendren (R-Gravette) and Keith Ingram (D-West Memphis) to put an end to fiscal sessions of the legislature, and a proposal from Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson (R-Little Rock) to create a system to appoint state Supreme Court justices, rather than electing them. (Judges in circuit courts, district courts and the Court of Appeals would continue to be elected under Hutchinson’s SJR 4.)
The Senate can only pick one constitutional amendment to refer to voters in 2018 (though it may also select another in concert with the House). Most observers think the likely choice is a so-called “tort reform” proposal by Sen. Missy Irvin. Today’s reception by Hutchinson’s fellow Republicans on the committee made it clear that his effort to switch the state to an appointment system would find little support, despite the clear problems inherent in electing judges.
Currently, Hutchinson told the committee, voters have little information on which to base their decisions in judicial races. Judges don’t have a party affiliation, and since they don’t vote on policy (unlike, say, legislators) there’s little in the way of a record for even very well-informed voters to draw from. Meanwhile, the senator continued, “outside money has a disproportionate influence” in Arkansas judicial races. “In recent elections, outside groups have put millions of dollars into electing one particular judicial candidate. … I don’t want to pass judgment on the beneficiaries of that, but even the beneficiaries of that outside money say it’s bad for the system.” Appointing justices — as is done with judges at the federal level — would make for a less political system, Hutchinson argued.
Sen. Eddie Joe Williams (R-Cabot) worried the bill would make it impossible for “a nobody” to get onto the Supreme Court. “I was talking to a friend of mine who ran for the [Court of Appeals] and won. He himself is a nobody who worked really hard to get elected,” he told Hutchinson. Williams said such a dark horse candidate would be unable to get onto the state’s highest court under an appointment system.
Hutchinson noted that his bill doesn’t affect elections for the Court of Appeals, or other judgeships. While retail politics are still possible in a geographic area the size of a Court of Appeals district, he said, “when you run statewide you can’t knock and doors and have an impact … it’s all about money. … I would say ‘a nobody’ has far less chance of being elected to the state Supreme Court than you do being appointed, because unless you have connections you’re not going to be able to raise the money.”
Sen. Terry Rice (R-Waldron) told Hutchinson that he hasn’t heard from a single voter who wants to “lose their right to vote” for justices. Hutchinson replied, “If you ask voters ‘Do you want to give up the right to vote?’ it’s going to be a unanimous ‘no.’ I’ve talked to voters as well. When you explain the situation, they realize ‘You know what? I don’t have a clue what I’m voting for [in judicial races]. I only voted for someone because of the title by their name,” or for other arbitrary reasons.
Sen. Irvin pointed out to Hutchinson that Chief Justice Dan Kemp, who was elected in 2016, is from a small town — Irvin’s own Mountain View. “He did not have the resources or the backing,” Irvin said. “He really just worked his butt off. … He campaigned relentlessly.”
Hutchinson said he is a “big fan of Chief Justice Kemp” and agreed that “he did work his tail off” in the campaign. But, he added, an outside group spent vast sums of money to elect him in that race. “He may have very well won without it … but he wasn’t somebody who spent $20,000 and won statewide.”
The committee took no action on any measure today, but Hutchinson said after the meeting that he was resigned to the lack of interest in his amendment. Hutchinson said he would be supporting a bill by Rep. Clarke Tucker (D-Little Rock) that would attempt to shine a light on spending by outside groups in Arkansas elections, judicial and otherwise. Reporting”dark money” spent on electioneering would be a step forward, the senator said. Hutchinson said he would prefer disclosing all dark money spending — as Tucker’s bill attempts to do — not just spending on judicial races. He also said he’d support a transparency bill by Rep. Jana Della Rosa (R-Rogers) to make campaign finance reports searchable to the public.