OPPOSED BILL: Judge Cathleen Compton

The House State Agencies Committee today rejected a bill widely understood to be backed by Republican Party Chair Doyle Webb to allow people who’d once served by appointment as judges to identify themselves as judges on election ballots.

Rep. Nelda Speaks amended the bill this morning to have it cover people who’d served at least 12 months by appointment within two years of the election. The bill previously had a five-year window. It happens that the requirement would still allow Barbara Webb, Doyle Webb’s wife, to run for a judgeship next year with the title judge. She served one year on the bench, in 2018, in Saline County by gubernatorial appointment. She and her husband have declined to comment to me on the bill, but Webb and Supreme Court Justice Shawn Womack, a former Republican senator as Webb was, have been politickiing for the bill. They see it as a way to give recent Republican appointees an advantage and thus stock the nonpartisan judiciary with more candidates of their liking.

The idea nonetheless drew some resistance from, among others, Republican Reps. Jim Dotson and Doug House. House noted that there were any number of honorifics not allowed on the ballot, such as his own as a former military officer.

Circuit Judge Cathleen Compton of Little Rock urged the committee to defeat the bill. She said she did not know for sure but suspected the bill was “special legislation” intended to help someone. Special legislation can “come back to haunt” legislators, she noted. She said it was hard work to run for office and suggested it was unfair to give an advantage to someone who’d never been elected to an office.

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The voice vote against a do-pass motion seemed to heavily favor the nay side, as Chair Dwight Tosh ruled.

UPDATE: For the record, here’s e-mail lobbying of other judges by Supreme Court Justice Shawn Womack on the legislation.

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I was not included in Judge Herzfeld’s email earlier, but, based on an email that I have received from Judge Alice Gray I believe it might be helpful to provide an update on the bill regarding judicial titles. This message is not intended to argue for or against any particular position, only to supplement the discussion with information that may be missing.

Representative Speaks filed HB 1531 a few weeks ago to expand who can use a judicial ballot title. Upon seeing the bill, the Judicial Council Board asked me to work with Representative Speaks (She is my State Representative) to see if changes were possible. At first, they requested that she hold the bill so that we could discuss what those changes might be. She agreed to hold the bill for a week past the date that she originally planned to run it.

After discussions during multiple board conference calls and email exchanges, I put together a list of the changes that had been requested by our members. She has agreed to adopt every change if JC moves from opposed to neutral. I understand that some may still not like the amended version, but I wanted to make everyone aware of what the bill would actually do when amended.

CURRENT LAW:

A nonpartisan Judge who has been ELECTED OR APPOINTED may use the ballot title to run for another nonpartisan judicial office IF they have served for at least a year AND they are currently in office AND they are running for either district or circuit judge.

THE BILL AS FILED:

Would allow a nonpartisan judge who has been ELECTED OR APPOINTED to use the ballot title for EITHER another nonpartisan judicial office OR a partisan office IF they are EITHER currently serving OR they have served within the preceding 5 years. As written, it would eliminate the one year of service requirement, it would allow the title to be used in court of appeals and supreme court races in addition to the current law allowing it in district and circuit judge races. It would prohibit title use if the only service was as a special judge or justice for a particular case or cases.

IF AMENDED TO MAKE JUDICIAL COUNCIL CHANGES:

It would reinstate the one year of service requirement in the current law. It would drop from 5 years after service to 2 years after service (the next election cycle after a term expired) to use the title. It would add Administrative Law Judges to the special judges and justices who are prohibited from using the title. It would allow judges and former judges who run for non-judicial offices to use the title within the 2 years if the other criteria were met. It would allow the title to be used in court of appeals and supreme court races in addition to the current use in district and circuit judge races.

WHAT THE BILL WILL NOT DO:

The bill will not, either as written or if amended, open the door for every circuit judge to get an opponent who is a non-elected former judge. Under the bill, if it gets amended with the Judicial Council requested changes, the ONLY districts that would have ANY changes in title use eligibility by candidates at the circuit court level in 2020 would be those circuits that have had a judge who was appointed OR elected AND whose term expired no earlier than 2018 AND they served for at least a year as judge AND they choose to run for office.

SOME ARKANSAS HISTORY ON APPOINTED JUDGES USING A BALLOT TITLE:

Prior to Mike Huckabee becoming Governor, appointed judges were allowed to use the title on the ballot if they ran. After Huckabee was elected, the General Assembly changed the law to prohibit his appointed judges from using the title on the ballot. After Mike Beebe was elected, the General Assembly changed the law again, to the current status, to allow Beebe’s appointees to use the title for district and circuit judge races after a year of service.

Finally, the issue pending before the board is whether to become neutral if Representative Speaks adopts all of the requested changes or to oppose the bill under any circumstances. It has been the practice of the JC board for years to request changes to objectionable bills when possible. I understand that many of you may still be opposed to the bill in any form, and that is fine. However, I wanted you to have a more complete picture of what the board has been doing up to this point.