Arkansas: Supreme Court could get merit selection if all other judicial races go back to being partisan ones

Plans to change the ways in which Arkansas judges are elected are starting to take shape as bills are starting to be debated and amended in committee any by authors, including one with a unique quid pro quo.

First, some background.

The state’s constitution (Amendment 80) moved the state away from partisan judicial elections in 2000 to nonpartisan with an option, subject to voter approval, to switch to “merit selection” (term used) for the state’s appellate courts (Supreme Court and Court of Appeals).

There are three proposed constitutional changes being debated/amended as of this writing, all heading in different directions.

Supreme Court only: merit selection

HJR 1005 as most recently amended would move only the state’s Supreme Court to merit selection with yes/no retention elections. A 15 member Judicial Nominating Commission would be created to submit 3 names to the Governor when a vacancy occurs on the Supreme Court.

  • 6 people who are non-attorneys and do not have attorneys in their immediate family selected by the Governor (at least 1 per congressional district)
  • 6 attorneys selected by the Arkansas Bar Association (at least 1 per congressional district)
  • 1 person selected from state at large by House Speaker
  • 1 person selected from state at large by Senate President Pro Tempore
  • 1 non-attorney who does not have attorneys in their immediate family selected from state at large by other 14 members of Commission

Supreme Court: merit selection, but only if all other judicial races go back to being partisan

HJR 1016 as most recently amended (H2) moves in two different directions at once. It moves Supreme Court races to a merit selection system, but places much more power over the 15 member Judicial Nominating Commission in the legislature

  • 5 people who are non-attorneys and do not have attorneys in their immediate family selected by the Governor (at least 1 per congressional district)
  • 6 attorneys selected by the Arkansas Bar Association (at least 1 per congressional district)
  • 1 person selected by House Speaker
  • 1 person selected Senate President Pro Tempore
  • 1 person selected by House Judiciary Chair
  • 1 person selected by Senate Judiciary Chair

At the same time it repeals nonpartisan elections for all other judicial races. Instead, those races would go back to being partisan unless the legislation specifically authorized nonpartisan elections again by statute.

As of the effective date of this amendment, judges of the Court of Appeals, circuit court judges, district court judges, and prosecuting attorneys shall be selected on a partisan basis unless the General Assembly provides by law that the offices shall be selected on a nonpartisan basis.

All judicial races: back to being partisan

HJR 1015 would abandon nonpartisan elections altogether and at all levels. Instead, judges and prosecuting attorneys would be required to be elected on a partisan ballot unless the legislature reenacted nonpartisan elections in language almost identical to HJR 1016.

 

 

 

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