Three of the four candidates seeking to become the Arkansas Supreme Court’s next Chief Justice engaged in a sometimes contentious debate Friday (Feb. 9) at the NEA Political Animals Club meeting in Jonesboro.
Current Arkansas Supreme Court justices Rhonda Wood and Barbara Webb were joined at the debate table by attorney Jay Martin. Justice Karen Baker did not attend.
Voters decided years ago that judges should run as non-partisans and all three candidates seemingly supported it. Martin, the only non-judge in the race and a former Democratic legislator, said he was registered as an independent and the judicial branch must be run by people without a political bias.
“You have to have the facts and apply them to the law. The rule of law must be upheld,” he said.
Webb agreed. Voters approved Amendment 80 which requires candidates to be nonpartisan and it was a large swath of Republicans and Democrats who supported the move.
“It’s important that you don’t let politics infiltrate professional roles … personal opinions and biases have to be put aside when applying the law,” she said.
Wood said the judicial code allows only for interpretations of the law through facts. Citizens in this state don’t want partisan Supreme Court justices, she added.
“It is the will of the voters,” she said.
When asked how she would handle budget constraints within the high court, Wood said she would take a number of steps to improve technology and security at courthouses throughout the state. That would include a comprehensive statewide study that would give the court the ability to seek national grants based on the data generated.
One thing Wood said she won’t do is ask for the court’s $58 million budget to be increased.
“I’m not going to the legislature to get more of your tax dollars,” she said.
Webb said she would tackle budget issues through the expansion of modern technology throughout the system.
“I have a proven track record of being fiscally conservative. You have to take on the tough challenges,” she said.
Martin said if he’s elected, he will press the legislature for more funding. He said every single courthouse in the state needs security upgrades.
“Our security cannot be compromised … we need more resources,” he said.
If elected, Webb said her priorities would be to enforce the state constitution and make the justice system more accessible to citizens. Last year alone, there were more than 40,000 failure to appear (FTA’s) citations issued. When people don’t know they are supposed to be in court, it causes their fines to build up and adds pressure on the entire system. She also wants to add more court reporters and interpreters.
Martin said that in addition to courthouse security he will focus on drug courts and the mental health crisis that has gripped the country. Cases are moving too slowly throughout the judicial system and Martin said he plans to find ways to speed the process. One change he said he wanted to implement was having an e-file system available in all county circuit clerks’ offices.
Wood said if she wins this race, she will endeavor to make the courts friendlier to the public, and she will push for technology upgrades. She admonished Martin for not knowing that e-file was already available in all courthouses.
After she spoke, Martin said he must have misunderstood. He works in several counties that don’t have e-file, and several attorneys in the audience agreed with Martin. Wood later clarified her statement. She said the system is available to all counties, but some have not opted to participate.
Webb noted that each county is independent and there is no centralized system. Some counties have been resistant to change. One possible solution might be to find grant money to help fund the implementation of these systems.
All four candidates seek to replace Arkansas Supreme Court Justice John Dan Kemp who is not seeking re-election. The contest will be held March 5.