John Moritz’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette preview today of the important race for Arkansas Supreme Court characterized the race as low-key and absent dark money spending employed in recent races for the court.
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The situation is changing, however. The Republican State Leadership Committee’s Judicial Fairness Initiative has already posted a YouTube video endorsing Webb, wife of Republican State Party chair Doyle Webb. The video includes a clip of Webb speaking about her qualifications for the court. It has filed papers indicating it will be making independent expenditures but has not yet filed a financial report.
This is the group that spent $2.6 million trying unsuccessfully to defeat Justice Courtney Hudson (then Goodson) in her race for Supreme Court re-election against David Sterling in 2018. It resents being called a dark money group because money flows in block amounts from a national PAC that reports millions in contributions nationwide to elect corporate-friendly judges. The money is, at best, opaque. There’s no meaningful way to trace money used by the group to funnel into races such as the one in Arkansas. No specific contribution reports with individual donors are filed in Arkansas.
Judicial races in Arkansas are supposed to be nonpartisan. They are anything but these days, as recent races by Justices Rhonda Wood and Shawn Womack demonstrated.
Barbara Webb, who hopes to defeat Circuit Judge Chip Welch for retiring Justice Jo Hart’s seat, is following the Republican template for judicial election. She is advertising a statement made about her by Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson when he named her to temporarily fill a judicial vacancy in Saline County; her social media posts are full of her appearances at Republican gatherings around the state (Welch has wangled a GOP appearance or two himself), and there’s a photo of her recent trip with Doyle Webb to the Trump White House.
But about that flyer that Webb is now sending around with the glowing words from the governor:
The Code of Judicial Conduct has something relevant to say about the conduct of judicial campaigns in Canon 4, which prohibits campaign activity “inconsistent with the independence, integrity or impartiality of the judiciary.” An excerpt says a candidate shall not:
… seek, accept, or use endorsements from a political organization or an elected official who was elected in a partisan election; however, nothing prevents a judicial candidate from speaking to a political organization or elected official concerning the judicial candidate’s election;
Is quoting from a news release issued by the elected Republican governor on his appointment of Webb to a temporary judicial vacancy an endorsement? Technically, perhaps not. But it quacks a lot like such a duck.
Ethical questions inevitably give rise to memories of the ethical miscues of Doyle Webb, as a practicing lawyer cast in a bad light in estate matters of an elderly woman and his mother, not to mention tax delinquencies and other unflattering business issues. Barbara Webb tells Moritz, “I am much more than just my husband’s wife.” Fair enough. I don’t claim knowledge of everything my wife gets involved in either, though I do know she contributed money to Welch, who was elected to her seat on the bench after her retirement in 2012.
Mr. Webb also was believed to be the instigator of failed legislation that would have allowed his wife to run with the title judge though she no longer holds a state court judgeship, by appointment or otherwise.
Overt partisanship and a seeming endorsement from an elected official with many issues before the Arkansas Supreme Court are worth thinking about. More concerning is the familiar Republican template of promised constitutional obedience and conservative jurisprudence. In practice, the words ring hollow. See the Republican attorney general, Leslie Rutledge, and Gov. Hutchinson. They have repeatedly shown disdain for the state and U.S. Constitutions in lawmaking and lawsuits — think unconstitutional or legally flawed attacks on abortion, equal rights, voting rights and welfare services, not to mention dislike for environmental regulation. Conservatism? Corporatism is more like it. Thus, the effort by the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce to raise money for Webb. The chamber’s lobbyist, Kenneth Hall, put it bluntly as we reported in soliciting money from other lobbyists:
This election, between a business conservative and a trial lawyer, is essentially a tort reform battle that’s a much cheaper option than trying to get a tort reform ballot initiative passed.
The Chamber believes that buying the seat for Webb would be a cheaper way to limit access to the courthouse for people damaged by corporate misbehavior and malpracticing doctors and nursing homes. It’s fair to note that the chamber helped elect Courtney Hudson in her first race, then felt betrayed by some of her subsequent rulings. Enter the Republican Leadership Committee with millions to punish her for apostasy, beginning with her losing race for chief justice.
The RLC’s slashing attacks on Hudson, centering in part on her personal life in 2018, perhaps prompted a backlash in her favor in the race against Sterling. For his part, Welch has taken the high road in this year’s race, touting his superior judicial experience and even offering kind words for Webb’s work as a state bureaucrat. He hasn’t mentioned criticism that emerged from the bar in Saline County during her brief tenure as an appointed judge about indecisiveness and absences from the courthouse. The criticism was widespread enough that Clint Lancaster, a current Webb campaign supporter and husband of Webb’s campaign finance chair, wrote an op-ed for a Saline County publication defending her deliberate nature. (Yes, that’s the Clint Lancaster who’s gotten national attention for pressing a child support claim against Hunter Biden, a matter coincidentally unhelpful to a certain Democratic presidential candidate.)
Welch appears to be correct in predicting to the Democrat-Gazette that a wave of darkish money will be forthcoming against him. I’ve been told ads have already begun by the Republican group, though I have seen only the YouTube I’ve posted. The full extent of its spending won’t be known until after the election on March 3. By then, it will be too late to offer clues to those seeking to buy judicial influence. A group of Arkansas Republicans have also begun so-called “independent” ads supporting Webb. UPDATE: RLC has already made radio buys, some targeting urban radio in Little Rock, a powerful influencer of black voters.
At last report, Welch had raised $99,000 for the race and Webb had raised about $70,000. The pressure was less intense on Webb. She had good reason to expect the Republican Leadership Committee would have her back in this so-called nonpartisan race, not to mention other partisan backing from a hypocritical party that pressed for an end to partisan judicial elections.
UPDATE: In a report filed Monday, Webb’s fund-raising total jumped to $163,454, powered by numerous PAC and Republican committee contributions. She outpaced Welch, who rose to $138,671. He had no PAC contributions. Most of his money came from lawyers. Are multiple donations by Republican committees not partisan endorsements prohibited by the code of judicial conduct.