©Wendell Griffen, 2024

Early voting for the Arkansas primary elections begins February 20 across Arkansas, and March 5 is Election Day.  So, candidates are working hard to attract attention and influence voting decisions by voters. This essay is my effort to inform voters in Arkansas about election contests involving candidates for positions on the Arkansas Supreme Court, Arkansas Court of Appeals, circuit courts, and district judges.

Because judicial candidates are the least well known of all political office contenders those of us who understand what judges do must help voters decide whether to support certain candidates over others. I have been a licensed attorney in Arkansas since 1979. I am also a retired state court judge who served on the Arkansas Court of Appeals (from 1996 through 2008) and as a Circuit Judge (from 2011 through 2022). I taught law  at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock Bowen School of Law from 2009 through 2011. I share this information so readers will know the background of my views on the role of courts and my preferences for judicial candidates.

First, remember that judges that serve on Arkansas state courts are elected by voters. Federal judges are nominated by the President of the United States and confirmed by the U.S. Senate. But the judges in district courts, circuit courts, the Arkansas Court of Appeals, and the Arkansas Supreme Court are elected by voters.

Next, understand that judicial candidates in Arkansas cannot run for office under a political party label, but must be non-partisan. That is why all judicial political contests appear on the ballots cast in both the Democratic and Republican primaries. Voters who do not want to vote in either of those primaries can request and receive a ballot that only lists the non-partisan judicial races.

Voters have the opportunity to cast ballots for judicial candidates vying for four different levels of the Arkansas court system. The judges who hold these positions render decisions affecting every aspect of our living. It is our obligation as free people to vote, and to vote intelligently.

Failure to vote not only puts our future in the hands of others. It is a rejection of the responsibility that comes from the freedom we have inherited because of sacrifices made by those who came before us. In other words, we vote because we are free people, because we know the value of freedom, and because we are determined to protect the rights we and others have to be free from oppression, tyranny, and abuse.

District judges decide disputes ranging from small civil claims, environmental code violations, misdemeanor criminal charges, and traffic citations. Those cases are all decided by judges, not juries. District judges serve four-year terms.

Circuit judges decide general civil and criminal disputes. The nature of the dispute determines whether it must be decided by a judge or whether the parties can prefer to have it decided by a jury. Criminal cases can be decided by a jury or by the judge alone. The same is true for contracts, personal injury, and disputes involving real estate or personal property.

Family law issues (divorce cases, child custody disputes, property settlement disputes, adoptions, guardianships, and foster parenting matters) must be decided by judges. Circuit Judges also decide appeals from decisions by administrative agencies. Circuit judges serve six-year terms.

The Arkansas Court of Appeals decides most of the appeals from circuit courts. The Arkansas Supreme Court has the last word on the outcome of legal disputes involving Arkansas civil and criminal law. Court of Appeals judges and Supreme Court justices serve eight-year terms. Their work involves reviewing appeals from lower court decisions to determine whether the lower court decisions are supported by substantial evidence and comply with controlling law.

Here are my choices for the contested judicial races.

Little Rock District Court Judgeships

Little Rock lawyer Robert Tellez and Circuit Judge Herbert Wright are competing for the Little Rock District Court judgeship that decides traffic cases. The position is currently held by District Judge Vic Fleming who is retiring at the end of this year. I favor Robert Tellez.  Judge Wright will continue in office as a Circuit Judge if Tellez is elected, thereby continuing to provide experience in that position. 

Circuit Judge Morgan “Chip” Welch and Perryville lawyer Elizabeth “Beth” Burgess are competing for the Little Rock District Court judgeship (misdemeanor criminal and small claims cases) now held by District Judge Wayne Gruber, who is also retiring at the end of this year.  I favor Judge Morgan "Chip" Welch, am a member of Judge Welch's campaign committee, and my wife and I were co-sponsors of his first fundraiser during this campaign season. 

Circuit Judge Mackie Pierce and attorney Jill Kamps are contending for a third District Court position that covers all of Pulaski and Perry Counties. Judge Pierce’s current term as circuit judge expires in December 2024. I favor Jill Kamps for election to that District Court position.  

Circuit Judge, Sixth Judicial Circuit, Seventeenth Division, Subdistrict 6.2

This position is currently held by Circuit Judge Mackie Pierce of Jacksonville. Judge Pierce is not seeking re-election, but is running for the Little Rock District Court seat. Little Rock lawyers Robert Cortinez Jr., Brent Eubanks, and Brooke-Augusta Ware are candidates for the position. I favor Robert Cortinez Jr.

Arkansas Court of Appeals

Court of Appeals Judge Rita Gruber is retiring at the end of this year, so Little Rock lawyers Pam Hathaway, Molly McNulty, and Circuit Judge Casey Tucker are competing to succeed her in that office. Hathaway and McNulty have served as law clerks for judges on the Court of Appeals. Judge Tucker is serving as a Circuit Judge in Little Rock and will continue in that office if she does not win this election. I favor Pam Hathaway.

Chief Justice, Arkansas Supreme Court

The position of Chief Justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court is up for election due to the retirement of Chief Justice John Dan Kemp at the end of this year. Little Rock lawyer Jay Martin, Associate Justice Karen Baker, Associate Justice Rhonda Wood, and Associate Justice Barbara Womack Webb are vying for that position. Based on his involvement in the community and work with people who are disrespected, marginalized, and unprotected, I favor Jay Martin.

Justices Baker, Webb, and Wood are already serving on the Supreme Court. They will each remain on the Arkansas Supreme Court - even if Jay Martin wins - because their terms are not expiring.

Associate Justice, Arkansas Supreme Court

The position of Associate Justice on the Arkansas Supreme Court is up for election due to the death last year of Justice Robin Wynne of Fordyce. Circuit Judge Carlton Jones of Texarkana and Associate Justice Courtney Hudson are competing for that seat. I favor Judge Carlton Jones.  

Judge Jones has trial experience from the time he graduated from law school. He was a trial lawyer who represented people in courtrooms before judges and juries. He has trial experience as a former prosecutor and is the first and only elected Black prosecuting attorney in Arkansas (in Texarkana). He currently presides over civil and jury trials as a circuit judge.  If elected, Judge Jones will become the first Black official elected to statewide office in Arkansas since Reconstruction, and will bring a perspective to the state supreme court that has long been missing.

Justice Hudson has no trial experience as a lawyer or as a judge. She will remain on the Court even if Judge Jones wins because as her term is not expiring.

A special note about the Supreme Court contests

Voters should understand another important dimension about the two supreme court positions. If a current supreme court justice is elected to the open chief justice position or to fill the unexpired term caused by the death of Justice Robin Wynne, Governor Sarah Sanders will appoint someone to the seat vacated by that current justice.

Unless Jay Martin and Judge Carlton Jones are elected in their respective contests, Governor Sanders will appoint two hard right justices to the Arkansas Supreme Court to rule on such matters as the LEARNS Act, the Freedom of Information Act, and mass incarceration. Their rulings will be harmful to marginalized persons, public education, public information about public policy and spending, and civil rights. By electing Jay Martin as Chief Justice and Judge Carlton Jones as Associate Justice, voters will protect themselves and Arkansas from what will otherwise be a hard right-wing state judiciary for the next generation.

I hope this information helps your decision-making. Please share it with as many voters as you can.

Remember, voting is our right and responsibility as free people. Prepare to vote. Urge others to join you in preparing and voting. We are free people. Let’s vote like we know what freedom means and are determined to remain free. 


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