Friday, February 26, 2016

EDITORIAL >> Choices for Supreme Court

Justices of the Arkansas Supreme Court—indeed, all judges—are supposed to be above partisanship and altogether inconsiderate of politics and public opinion, but voters will chose two of the seven Supreme Court members at the party primaries Tuesday instead of the general election this November. The choices could not be more important, although the immense money spent and the dark strategies used in the campaigns seem to leave confused voters no obviously sensible choices. We will try to make some sense of the chaos created by the large dumps of money into the campaigns by “independent” and largely anonymous groups outside the state.

Justice Courtney Goodson is running for chief justice, a job she has been working toward since she first entered politics as Courtney Henry eight years ago. Once on the Court of Appeals, the former Republican left her husband and married the rich trial lawyer John Goodson of Texarkana, who had lavished jewels and other gifts on her. Original supporters in the business community think she also left them for the trial lawyers and the bleeding-heart crowd who thinks people aggrieved by nursing homes and industries should be forced to pay for injuries, including punitive damages. Once on the Supreme Court, she voted with all the other justices to invalidate a part of the “tort reform” act of 2003 that limited punitive damages. The Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce, for one, felt betrayed. Her opponent is longtime Circuit Judge Dan Kemp of Mountain View, whose ads emphasize his deep family loyalty, religious piety and independence from politics.

Running in the other race, to succeed retiring Justice Paul Danielson, are Circuit Judge Shawn Womack, a former Republican state representative and senator, and Clark Mason, a longtime practicing lawyer.

Our choices are Judge Kemp and Mason for the simple reason that they seem to be more independent of the bitter party and factional politics of our unfortunate times. We don’t know whether Kemp is a Republican or a Democrat. We suspect that Mason has Democratic leanings because he has contributed to Democratic candidates in the past, but that is a failing of nearly everyone in public life in this oh-so-recent diehard Democratic state.

Two shadowy national groups whose contributors are anonymous have poisoned both campaigns. The Judicial Crisis Network and the Republican State Leadership Committee have spent fortunes to make two of the candidates, Goodson and Mason, seem to be incarnate evil. Kemp has disavowed and even condemned the ads by the Judicial Crisis Network that demonize his opponent, Goodson, by suggesting that she is owned by Bill and Hillary Clinton who once supported her (the Clintons were married in her original father- and mother-in-law’s home at Fayetteville), that she is now in the clutches of her new husband’s evil band, the trial lawyers and that she might have secret sympathies for the evil Barack Obama. Kemp says he had no knowledge of the ads and repudiates them and that he knows nothing of the Judicial Crisis Network.

Two years ago, Justice Goodson’s husband was suspected of funneling $400,000 into a dark-money group in Washington that ran despicable ads against another Supreme Court candidate who had been a law partner of her by then estranged former husband. The targeted candidate was narrowly defeated.

Although political parties are not supposed to be involved in judicial races at all, the Republican State Leadership Committee is spending a fortune to elect Womack by suggesting that Clark Mason is a friend of Barack Obama and other Democrats and a puppet of trial lawyers. Womack has run similar ads on his own.

If you are looking for someone who might rise above this dirty business, Judge Kemp and Mason look like the safest bets.

Ernie Dumas writes editorials for The Leader.