The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported this afternoon that Barbara Webb, wife of Arkansas Republican Chair Doyle Webb, will file for the Arkansas Supreme Court seat currently held by Justice Jo Hart.
Circuit Judge Morgan “Chip” Welch has already announced his candidacy. Justice Hart, who would have to give up retirement benefits if she is elected to another term because she turns 75 later this month, still hasn’t said definitively that she is retiring.
Judicial races are nominally non-partisan, but Doyle Webb headed a PAC several years ago aimed at putting conservative judges on the bench. A number of judicial candidates have openly worked Republican connections in recent years to win seats by self-identifying in that fashion in a state where all statewide officials and a supermajority of the legislature are Republicans. Supreme Court Justice Shawn Womack is a former Republican senator who remains enmeshed in legislative politics. Justice Rhonda Wood campaigned at Republican county committees regularly and relied on testimonial robocalls from former Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee.
There’d been rumors of an entry in this race by Republican Attorney General Leslie Rutledge. Webb’s entry I’d guess eliminates that possibility.
Barbara Webb has benefitted from political connections. Her Workers Comp job is a political appointment. Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson also appointed her to fill a one-year vacancy as a circuit judge in Saline County after Bobby McCallister left the bench in an ethics investigation. Her sister, Becky Keogh, was named by Republican Hutchinson to head the Department of Environmental Quality.
Doyle Webb tried to give his wife a leg up to run for a judgeship (openings exist in Saline County in 2020) during the 2019 legislature with unsuccessful legislation that would have allowed people who’d served at least one year as judge within two years of an election to run with the title “judge,” perceived as a valuable help on the ballot. The legislation would have allowed Barbara Webb to run as Judge Webb in 2020, even though she is not a judge currently.
Welch has begun raising money. Webb starts behind, with filing opening in the coming week for the March election, but she need not worry about money. The shadowy Republican Leadership Committee, a Washington PAC, pumped $2.6 million into an effort to defeat Justice Courtney Hudson in the last election. Similar groups have poured torrents of dark money into races to elect Republicans, or Republican sympathizers, to judicial and other offices.
Welch, in his second term as circuit judge, was a trial lawyer and that past will undoubtedly be employed by his opponents. Webb, whose career included time as a phone company lawyer, likely will get some scrutiny of her time on the bench in Saline County.