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A guide to the 2024 Arkansas Supreme Court Chief Justice race

The Arkansas Judiciary Justice Building in Little Rock.
John Sykes
Arkansas Advocate
The Arkansas Judiciary Justice Building in Little Rock.

The information in this guide is taken directly from the candidates' answers in a forum presented by the Central Arkansas Library System, the League of Women Voters of Pulaski County, and Little Rock Public Radio.

February 20 marked the beginning of early voting in the nonpartisan judicial election for chief justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court. Incumbent Chief Justice John Dan Kemp is not seeking reelection due to a state law that would cause him to forfeit retirement benefits if he sought another term. Kemp has served in the position since 2017.

On Feb. 7, 2024, a forum was held so voters could hear from all four candidates seeking the chief justice position. Those candidates are:

  • Karen Baker, Arkansas Supreme Court associate justice
  • Barbara Webb, Arkansas Supreme Court associate justice
  • Rhonda Wood, Arkansas Supreme Court associate justice
  • Jay Martin, attorney and former Democratic member of the Arkansas House of Representatives

If any of the three candidates already serving on the high court are elected, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders will handpick a justice to fill the vacant seat.
If you missed the forum, here's a guide showing where each of the candidates stands on various issues.

Election Day is March 5.

Candidate snapshots:

Karen Baker currently holds position 6 on the Arkansas Supreme Court. A graduate of Clinton High, Baker started practicing law in 1989 as a public defender in Van Buren and Searcy counties. “The people that know me best are in Van Buren County and in the last election they voted for me over seventy percent. Only nine-hundred people voted the other way and they were just confused,” joked Baker in her introductory speech at the forum.

Arkansas Supreme Court Associate Justice Karen Baker.
Arkansas Judiciary
Arkansas Supreme Court Associate Justice Karen Baker.

Barbara Webb currently holds position 4 on the Arkansas Supreme Court. Webb has been practicing law since 1982, serving as in-house counsel for Southwestern Bell right out of law school. “I've had hands-on experience managing judges, managing court staff, managing the support staff and the state agency that supports the courts, and I believe all of that is what has prepared me to be your next chief justice,” Webb said during her opening statement.

Rhonda Wood currently holds position 7 on the Arkansas Supreme Court. A graduate of Hendrix College, Wood worked in private practice before becoming a circuit judge in 2007. She joined the Arkansas Supreme Court in 2014. “ I am a working mom. I went to law school with four kids. That tells you I'm not afraid of hard work,” Wood said in her opening statement.

Jay Martin is the only candidate not currently serving on the Arkansas Supreme Court. “Chief Justice John Dan Kemp was an outsider to the court, and he came on the court as chief justice, having not been on the court, and I think he has done a good job. He’s retiring and I want to come in very much like he did, as an outsider to the court,” Martin told Little Rock Public Radio.

Question 1:

What are the top two areas you think need the most improvement in Arkansas’ court system?

Karen Baker: “My focus is on ensuring [Arkansas has] a competent bar and that it is able to serve the communities in Arkansas, that we are doing what we can to serve the Arkansas people. Sometimes that takes thoughts about who should be licensed and who should not.”

“The constitution directs us to deal with attorney licensure and we're not doing a good job in my opinion. We've had some leadership mistakes in the past. They have continued and are causing problems to this day, with how we allocate money from our license fees. I think that the problems need to be addressed. I think we need to allocate more money for JLAP [Arkansas Judges and Lawyers Assistance Program]. I've been advocating for attorney mental health and I hope that we're succeeding to some extent with that, but we don't have the funding we need.”

Barbara Webb: “Everyone relies on technology but the court system has been reluctant to embrace it. Technology can help the judicial system work more efficiently and provide resources more economically. Most importantly, it can provide equal opportunity access to the courts.”

“I believe in equal protection for all, regardless of race, skin color, nationality, gender, the money you make, or the money you have. I believe we can take new technology, whether it's with our cell phones, where we notify people of their hearings. Or whether it's having more available court interpreters. Or working with court reporters—which are getting scarce—making records electronic. All of that, I believe, can make the court system more affordable, more efficient, and more accessible.”

Rhonda Wood: “I think the biggest problems are transparency and access to the court.”

“[A lack of] transparency means that people are afraid of the Court, they are not educated, they do not know how the court system works, and therefore they're afraid to utilize the court system to solve their problems. I started a podcast and all I do is record episodes on how the state courts work, to just provide that civic education and access to the court system.”

Jay Martin: “I'm an outsider to the court, I want to be the people's judge. I think a fresh perspective is needed in looking at the Supreme Court. I believe we can make decisions more timely. There's concern about the time that it's taking for decisions to be made and I think some of that may be due to covid but we need to move cases.”

“We need to complete the capacity for e-filing for every county courthouse and the technology that is there—particularly for our circuit clerks—is very antiquated. We need state-of-the-art technology. In some of our rural counties it's very bad. We need to improve the security of our county courthouses. We need to emphasize technology in each county courthouse, and we also need to make sure that our circuit judges and circuit clerks have the resources they need. There is a disparity in the material needed and the material provided for circuit judges across the counties of the state.”

Question 2: 

What is the most common misconception among Arkansans about the courts?

Karen Baker: “I’m sorry Mr. Martin, but don’t send me another novice to train. We don’t suffer from a lack of outside perspective. The chief justice is the leader of the courts and I think it’s important that it be someone that has experience. I’m the most experienced candidate, I don’t think anyone will argue with that.”

Jay Martin, candidate for chief justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court.
Jay Martin, candidate for chief justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court.

Barbara Webb: “I think people think that the people with the most money win [court cases]. That’s not necessarily true. It’s the people who can present the best case. The Arkansas court system is very fair. We have had corruption in our court system and I think we need to make sure that our court system is not corrupt.”

Rhonda Wood: “A big misperception is that people see the court system as there to cause problems in their lives rather than to solve them. I say that we are in the public service industry. As chief justice, I want to make sure every court, every judge, every staff member knows that we are public servants.”

Jay Martin: “The bench and the bar have done a poor job communicating to the people that [judges] are public servants. The simple fact is that the people are in charge of our courts and our republic, the same as they’re in charge of our executive and legislative branches. As judges and justices, we hold the door open so that people can walk in regardless of party affiliation, race, and socioeconomic status. Lady Justice is blind and our beautiful [court] buildings belong to the taxpayers that paid for them. I think we need to make that clear to the people. My goal is to change that perception, and be the people’s judge.”

Question 3:

What would your priorities be as chief administrator in a role as chief justice?

Karen Baker: “The mental health of our judges and lawyers is my highest priority.”

Barbara Webb: “Protecting our God-given rights set forth in the constitution. Equal access to our courts is also very important.”

Rhonda Wood: “Simplify the court process. Utilize technology to make an easier path for victims of human trafficking and domestic violence [to be safely heard in the courts]. I will also continue to focus, as I have for the past eighteen years, on juvenile justice reform, which is near and dear to my heart.”

Jay Martin: “We must maintain the independence of the judiciary at all costs. We must make sure that our Supreme Court functions as a court; no trading votes and no legislating from the bench, that's for another branch of government. We must uphold the rule of law. We must defend the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. If there's a state statute that is unconstitutional, we have to have the fortitude to say that it's unconstitutional because that's our job. Equal justice under the law must be our guiding principle.”

Question 4:

How would you balance those administrative duties while serving as an active justice on the high court?  

Karen Baker: “I'm the senior justice and I have been for eight years. I act as the chief justice whenever the chief justice cannot sit on a case; when he has to recuse from a case. That's happened 31 times since I've been on the court as senior justice. I've handled all of those cases, and my current workload, without any problem. I think I will be able to do the same in the chief's role. It's really about learning how to allocate your time and I think I've demonstrated an ability to do that.”

Barbara Webb: “I’ve managed three prosecutor’s offices in three separate counties. I had to work with three quorum courts and three county judges and folks in three counties, managing those offices as well—as I mentioned—as the state agency, where I had to work with the legislature to address some significant economic issues that were facing the workers’ comp system. I've traveled the state as a judge and worked in most of the courthouses in the state. I believe all that is part of the job as chief justice.”

Rhonda Wood: “I went to law school while having four children in elementary school, I promise you that after that, everything else is a cakewalk. I chair more committees than any other justice on the court. I chair five committees currently. I've served on eleven committees during my tenure, my ten years on the court. That was with three kids in high school, so I know time management. I know how to prioritize.”

Jay Martin: “I’m currently [campaigning in] all 75 counties. I'm also still the president of my law firm. Last Thursday, I was at Metro Little Rock, our inner city campus, speaking to a group of students, as I've done for twenty-six years. I’m a dad and a husband and prioritizing [those duties] is essential. As well as finding quiet time to grow spiritually. I will go into the counties and work with them, making sure decisions are made timely. We can accomplish these things as we manage our time and work with each other.”

Question 5:

How do you envision the court’s relationship with the executive and legislative branches of government?

Karen Baker: “Separate, but equal.”

Barbara Webb: Separate, but an asset to. “Y'all read the paper, Y'all watch the TV. You’re seeing a lot of things happen with the legislature and with the executive branch, the governor’s office, but all of the fights are in the court system. And that’s where the last fight is going to be held. I think it’s very important who your chief justice is.”

Arkansas Supreme Court Associate Justice Rhonda Wood.
Arkansas Supreme Court Associate Justice Rhonda Wood.

Rhonda Wood: Separate, but working closely together. “We cannot make reforms without working with the executive and legislative branches. I’m ready to do that.”

Jay Martin: Separate, but allied. “I served two terms in the Arkansas House of Representatives and was majority leader in my second term... I think I’m uniquely qualified to work with the legislature to accomplish real change, to be the ambassador for the Supreme Court as chief justice. Certainly there’s a separation, but there’s also allies.”

Questions from the audience

Question 1:

What are your thoughts on the state’s drug policy and the drug court system in Arkansas?

Karen Baker thinks drug courts are important.

Barbara Webb is a “big believer” in the drug court system, but believes getting drugs off the streets is the higher priority.

Rhonda Wood said she is passionate about drug courts, but thinks that qualifying markers should be scrutinized on an individual basis. “Not everyone who’s arrested with a large quantity of drugs has a problem and needs to go to drug court. Conway may not appreciate this, but the person that had the most drugs in Conway High, when I was on drug court, did not have a drug problem. He had a family socioeconomic problem. He would never use drugs, but he was dealing to put food on the table for his brothers and sisters. So we need to make sure we don’t put someone on drug court, providing those resources, when we really need to go deal with the family socioeconomically—getting that family support.”

Jay Martin thinks the system needs to be “revamped” and “improved.” “We need to work with the legislature to see that happen. We’re living in a different world. You can’t just lock everyone up... drug addiction is an illness and we need to treat it like one.”

Question 2:

When you envision your ideal chief justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court, what are some of the characteristics you envision?

Karen Baker thinks the chief justice should be nonpartisan.

Barbara Webb thinks the chief justice should believe in the rule of law and go to work every day to uphold that.

Rhonda Wood: “Honesty, integrity, and a little bit of tenaciousness.”

Jay Martin: “A servant leader. A humble leader.”

Closing statements:

Karen Baker: “I have worked in the court system all my life. I am so grateful for the experience I've had. I'm so grateful to the voters in the last election for giving me six more years on the court because I really need the insurance to keep going, at least until I'm 65. So, thank you to the voters.”

Arkansas Supreme Court Associate Justice Barbara Womack Webb.
Arkansas Supreme Court Associate Justice Barbara Womack Webb.

Barbara Webb: “I have a passion to serve the people of Arkansas and I think I've demonstrated that. I've got a proven record of improving the judicial system in Arkansas. I went behind a prosecutor, cleaned up that system, got the drugs out of the schools, but also went behind another judge who didn't pay his taxes and cleaned up his backlog of cases. Those things take hard work. It takes being willing to give up your personal time for your commitment to the people of Arkansas. I would give you that commitment. I will work hard. As your next chief justice, I will be guided daily by the holy inspired words of Micah 6:8 ‘what does the Lord require of thee but to seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.’”

Rhonda Wood: “I’ve worked with three chief justices and I know there is tremendous responsibility in that role, and I do not take that lightly. This is an incredible opportunity for the state of Arkansas and times are changing. I would love to take that opportunity and lead Arkansas to make some real reform in the system and make it more citizen-friendly in our courts.”

Jay Martin: “You may be on a platform someday and someone calls you a novice. I have to deal with that issue first and foremost. I visited with our current chief justice and I realized that he was an outsider to the Supreme Court when he became chief justice. I began to think that it's an advantage, being an outsider. To come on the court having the fresh eyes, having the new blood, trying to solve some problems that have not been solved for years and years and I don't know why. But I think we can solve them as we work together.”

You can watch the original recording of the forum here.

You can learn more about the candidates at their respective websites:

Karen Baker

Barbara Webb

Rhonda Wood

Jay Martin

Seth Hooker is a George C. Douthit Endowed Scholarship recipient, interning at Little Rock Public Radio from UA Little Rock's professional writing program. He enjoys (being seen) reading literary classics and one day aspires to write one of his own. He lives in Bryant with his wife and three daughters.
Daniel Breen is News Director of Little Rock Public Radio.