LITTLE ROCK—A sitting justice and a veteran circuit judge are running to be Arkansas' next Supreme Court chief justice in a race that's been marked by questions about the court's handling of a gay marriage case, campaign donor influence and an
outside group's television ad blitz.
Associate Justice Courtney Goodson is running against Circuit Judge Dan Kemp for the eight-year term to head the state's high court in the March 1 election. The winner will replace interim Chief Justice Howard Brill.
Goodson, 43, was first elected to the high court in 2010 and previously served two years on the state Court of Appeals. In announcing her bid, she vowed to represent "conservative values" and said she wants to make the court more transparent.
"Arkansans, they deserve to have a court where justice is the same for every single person and as chief justice I'll make sure the law is applied consistently," Goodson said. "No matter whether you're the most powerful person in the state or you're just a single mom trying to get by."
Kemp, 64, has been a circuit judge representing north Arkansas' 16th judicial district since 1987. Kemp vows in ads to be guided by "prayer, not politics" and says he wants to improve the court's image.
"It seems like our culture and our values and our morals are being undermined not only behind the scenes but in broad daylight," Kemp said. "I just felt like I couldn't sit back and let that happen anymore."
With early voting set to begin Tuesday, the race has quickly heated up over ads targeting Goodson. The Washington-based Judicial Crisis Network has bought more than $386,000 worth of time to air spots targeting Goodson, according to Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice, which track spending on judicial elections. The 30-second spot criticizes Goodson over contributions and gifts she's received since taking office.
Goodson is married to John Goodson, an attorney. She reported on financial disclosure forms in 2011 receiving $99,000 in jewelry, trips, electronics and other gifts from him when they were dating. In 2013, she reported receiving a $50,000 trip to Italy from W.H. Taylor, an attorney and friend of her husband's. Goodson has recused herself from any cases involving her husband, Taylor or Tyson Foods Inc., a company Taylor has represented.
The ad also cites $142,500 in donations Goodson received in the 2010 race from six law firms that have worked together on class-action civil cases in the state.
Goodson has slammed the ads, calling them a "coordinated effort" by Kemp and his supporters. She's also cited the Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission' decision in 2013 to dismiss a complaint over the gifts.
"I think it's wrong for my opponent to allow these secret interests, dark money group into our state, in fact to welcome them into our state," Goodson said. "What you will notice is they never even try to say I'm not a good justice."
Kemp, who has called for stricter recusal rules for justices and a ban on judges accepting gifts, says his campaign had no prior knowledge about the ads. In an email to supporters two days after the ads launched, Kemp said he believed they raised legitimate questions about "lavish" gifts and campaign donations.
"Many of these firms have no presence in the state of Arkansas whatsoever. Here, Ms. Goodson's complaints ring hollow," he wrote in the email.
The race also comes after a high-profile split over the court's handling of a gay marriage case that landed before it last year. The late Chief Justice Jim Hannah and Justice Paul Danielson last year accused the court's majority of unnecessarily delaying work on the lawsuit by creating a spinoff case over which justices could participate in the appeal. The makeup of the court changed after it heard arguments but before releasing a decision.
The court ultimately dismissed the gay marriage lawsuit hours after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide.
Goodson was among the majority that supported creating the spinoff case.
Kemp said he believes it's possible politics was behind the court's delay, but declined to say whether he believes Goodson was responsible.
"I think it should have been decided expeditiously without undue delay," he said.
Goodson said the court's unanimous ruling in the spinoff case showed that it was necessary to figure out which justices could participate.
"That question was answered and it was said the spinoff case was entirely necessary in order for the court to function with seven members to reach a decision in the marriage case," she said.