Justices Rhonda Wood and Karen Baker announce run for Chief Justice of Supreme Court
Arkansas Supreme Court Justices Rhonda Wood and Karen Baker have both announced they will enter the election to replace Justice John Dan Kemp as the chief justice of the court. Kemp will not seek re-election, he is retiring after his term expires.
Role of the chief justice
In an interview with KUAR News, former Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Anabelle Imber Tuck said the chief justice’s main responsibility is handling the administrative side of the judiciary. She said the role of chief justice is similar to the role of a CEO. She used the pandemic to illustrate the chief justice’s role in the court system.
“That was on the chief justice’s table. Should we close the courts? What are we to do for judges to be able to operate? What limitations should we put? Obviously, all the courts are controlled by the county judges, but what do we do about the state employees who are not only judges but also the case coordinators,” she said.
In addition to helping set procedures for the courts, Tuck said the chief justice also has an oversight role.
“If there's a problem in a district, where a judge is not closing cases properly or is keeping too many undecided cases where they’re ready for a resolution then the chief justice might appoint a judge to go in and help,” she said.
The chief justice is also responsible for the budget of the judiciary, Tuck said. The chief justice sets the budget and has to present it to the state legislature for approval. According to Ballotpedia, the Arkansas Judicial System had an operating budget of $119,991,073 in 2022.
Tuck said the chief justice manages speciality courts. According to the Arkansas Judiciary’s website, specialty courts are implemented to further assist individuals with distinct concerns, such as veteran mental health, juvenile substance use and intoxicated drivers. Arkansas has 49 adult drug courts, 16 juvenile drug courts, 14 DWI courts, five HOPE & Swift courts, 16 veterans treatment courts, five alternative sentencing courts, two family treatment courts and two mental health courts.
About Justice Rhonda Wood
In 2014, Wood was first elected to the Arkansas Supreme Court and was re-elected in 2022. Prior to serving on the high court, she served on the Court of Appeals and as a circuit judge. Wood said she believes her experience and temperament has prepared her to serve as chief justice.
“As a justice on the Arkansas Supreme Court, I have led countless judicial committees, task forces, and state-wide initiatives for the benefit of all Arkansans. I have also demonstrated that I know how to work as a separate but equal partner with the other branches of government for our common goals. I am the fiscal conservative our judiciary needs to monitor the more than fifty million dollars that flows through the Supreme Court and the Administrative Office of the Courts,” she said in a press release.
On her website, Wood said she will lay out her primary initiatives she would prioritize if she were elected as chief justice.
About Justice Karen Baker
Baker is currently serving her third term on the Arkansas Supreme Court. She said serving multiple terms on the high court has prepared her to be chief justice.
“I believe my experience at every level of the judiciary is unmatched and I am currently the senior, most experienced justice, on the Arkansas Supreme Court. I want to continue to put that experience to work for the people of Arkansas,” Baker said in a press release.
She has been on the high court since 2011. Prior to that, Baker served as a circuit judge, juvenile judge and on the Arkansas Court of Appeals.
Tuck said whoever the next chief justice is, the biggest challenge will be modernizing the judiciary so it can be accessible online. She said the construction of the new Supreme Court building is a step in the right direction because it provides the space needed to house IT equipment and staff.
The election for chief justice will be held on March 5, 2024. Elections for the Supreme Court and chief justice are nonpartisan.