Judge Morgan “Chip” Welch said Chief Justice John Roberts is the Supreme Court Justice with whom he most aligns, while Barbara Webb said she most aligns with Justice Neil Gorsuch and the late Justice Antonin Scalia.
The two Arkansas Supreme Court candidates made their comments Thursday (Feb. 6) after giving brief addresses to the Arkansas Bar Association’s Mid-Year meeting at the Holiday Inn Airport in Little Rock.
The two are competing for the Position 4 seat currently held by Justice Josephine “Jo” Hart, who is not running for re-election. They will be the only candidates on every ballot in the Republican and Democratic primaries March 3.
The two were given 10 minutes to speak to the Bar Association, but Webb spoke for less than five minutes while Welch spoke a little more than six.
Webb called herself “the conservative candidate” and said she agrees with Gorsuch’s position on due process and his belief that judges should not bring a political or social agenda to the court. She said she is a strict constructionist, meaning she favors interpreting the Constitution literally, and a textualist, which means the same when it comes to statutes.
“Here’s my basic philosophy is that I believe in the Constitution, and I believe in the rule of law, and I believe that the role of the Court is not to legislate but to interpret the law,” she told reporters afterwards.
Welch offered a similar description of himself.
“I’m a strict constructionist,” he told reporters. “I construe the Constitution as it’s written. I’m not rewriting either the U.S. Constitution or the Arkansas Constitution.”
Welch told the Bar he is running to make the Supreme Court to “be more collegial, meet more regularly.” He later told reporters that he had noticed while observing a U.S. Supreme Court case how friendly conservative Justice Clarence Thomas and liberal Justice Stephen Breyer were with each other.
“We need more of that because the Court needs to be able to move forward in its business, and I think I can work with any member of that Court,” he said. “I’ve had breakfast, lunch or dinner with every one of them at one time or another on the Judicial Council, and I like them all.”
Welch stressed the importance of a justice being nonpartisan. Webb is the wife of Republican Party of Arkansas Chairman Doyle Webb but told the Bar, “I have never in my 14 years on the bench ever let politics get involved in my decisions.”
The two touted their experience. Webb is the current chief law judge at the Arkansas Workers’ Compensation Commission and previously served as the commission’s CEO. She also has been a circuit judge for Saline County and a prosecuting attorney for Saline, Hot Spring and Grant counties.
As prosecutor, she took over the seat formerly held by Dan Harmon, who went to prison on drug and corruption convictions. During her speech, Webb said, “I told the media at the time that we were going to change the headlines from ‘Criminal charges filed against prosecutor’ to ‘Prosecutor files criminal charges.’”
She said her office shut down more than 500 meth labs during her first year in office.
Welch is the 16th Division Circuit Judge for the 6th Judicial Circuit, which consists of Pulaski and Perry Counties. He was president of the Arkansas Trial Lawyers’ Association, which awarded him its Lifetime Achievement Award. He told attendees that he had heard more than 8,000 matters in the past seven years and had tried 150 jury trials as an attorney in private practice.
“There is no case that anybody in this election is going to refer to in my seven years on the bench where somebody didn’t get a fair trial,” he said.
The two said they support Arkansas continuing to select justices through an election process. Webb said she would like to see candidates be able to more freely offer their viewpoints to educate voters.
Previous judicial races have drawn large expenditures by outside “dark money” groups that don’t disclose their donors. Welch said he expects those groups to become involved in Arkansas’ race soon and to be in support of Webb.