Independent group forms to offer facts in Arkansas judicial races

by Steve Brawner ([email protected]) 272 views 

A new nonprofit whose board includes two retired state Supreme Court justices has been formed to educate voters on judicial candidates and combat misleading ads by independent groups.

Funded entirely by private donations, the Arkansas Judicial Campaign Conduct and Education Committee has created a website – ArkansasJudges.org – that launched Thursday and will provide information about judicial candidates. The effort includes a rapid response team that will respond to complaints by candidates of false campaign attacks. It also is encouraging candidates to sign pledges that they will abide by the Code of Judicial Conduct and disavow false communications that support their campaigns.

The committee said in a press release Thursday (Jan. 21) that it won’t support specific candidates.

Voters in Arkansas will go to the polls March 1 to elect two Supreme Court justices. In the race for chief justice, Associate Justice Courtney Goodson faces Circuit Judge Dan Kemp of Mountain View. In the race for associate justice position 5, Circuit Judge Shawn Womack of Mountain Home faces attorney Clark Mason of Little Rock.

There are also two contested Court of Appeals races. In District 2, which serves north-central Arkansas, Circuit Judge Mike Murphy of Conway faces Prosecuting Attorney Cody Hiland of Conway. Three attorneys are running for the District 5 judge seat in south Arkansas: James McMenis of Smackover, Mark Klappenbach of Fordyce, and Job Serebrov of Sheridan.

The committee’s board of directors is composed of retired Supreme Court Justice Annabelle Imber Tuck; retired Justice Robert Brown; Sixth Judicial District Judge Mary McGowan; attorneys Mark Nichol, Nate Coulter, Jim Julian and Harry Truman Moore; and business owner Beverly Morrow.

The website includes a map of Arkansas where voters can search candidates in their counties. But Tuck said that, with judicial elections occurring so early this year, the committee decided it had time to focus only on those four appellate races and will expand its efforts to other races in the next election cycle.

The site will include candidate biographical data, photos, personal statements and endorsements that are provided voluntarily by the campaigns and won’t be edited by the committee. At the moment, no information is available on any of the campaigns. Tuck said a certified mail letter was sent to the campaigns to ask them to contribute.

“So many times, voters don’t know who the judicial candidates are, at all, and so this is an effort to get more information to voters in one place,” Tuck said.

Tuck said the group is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. It has raised about $4,000 so far from board members and will seek other donations. She said board members and the rapid response team are all unpaid volunteers. The rapid response team will investigate complaints by campaigns rather than take its own initiative and will operate independently of the nonprofit.

The press release announcing the group’s formation referenced the 2014 Supreme Court election between Justice Robin Wynne, the eventual winner, and Tim Cullen. In that race, the Law Enforcement Alliance of America, an independent group, stated in an ad that Cullen had argued in an appeal that child pornography is a “victimless crime.” The committee said the claim was false. The website factcheck.org said the ad was “beyond the pale.”

The committee was formed July 2, 2015, as a result of one of the recommendations of a 2012 report from the Task Force on Judicial Election Campaigns. That task force was created by the board of governors of the Arkansas Bar Association at the request of then-Chief Justice Jim Hannah and then-Justice Brown to consider judicial election reforms, particularly in light of misleading campaign ads run by independent groups that were being run elsewhere and, it was feared, would soon become common in Arkansas.

The group recommended the creation of the website, the response team, and the pledge in its 2012 report.

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