There’s one seat up for grabs on the Arkansas’s highest court, and it belongs to Justice Courtney Goodson.
She’s seeking another eight-year term, and has two challengers in the nonpartisan judicial election: state Appeals Court Judge Kenneth Hixson, and Department of Human Services Chief Counsel David Sterling.
And while all three say they want to focus on the issues, a bigger story has loomed large over the race. Both Goodson and Hixson have been the subject of T-V and online ads from dark money groups; ones that don’t have to disclose their donors.
Goodson’s ads came first. Worth over a half-million dollars, the ads lambasted Goodson for accepting a $50,000 trip to Italy from one of her donors.
Goodson told KUAR News that the ads, which she calls false and misleading, are an attack not only on herself, but on the election process.
“It is undermining the independence of the voter in Arkansas to make an informed decision with the facts,” Goodson said. “Because what’s going on is we have the media being flooded with fake news and lies, and it makes it virtually impossible.”
The ads targeting Goodson came from the Judicial Crisis Network, a Washington D-C based political campaign group that is well known for funding attack ads in various races. The group also funded ads attacking Goodson two years ago, when she ran unsuccessfully for Chief Justice.
Shortly after Goodson, came Hixson. His ad, also from the Judicial Crisis Network, was a throwback to the Willie Horton ads of the late ‘80s and accused him of being soft on crime. Hixson told KUAR it wasn’t the ad directed at him that got his attention, it was one from another dark money group: the Republican State Leadership Committee, which is unaffiliated with the Arkansas Republican Party.
That ad began with images of CNN anchor Anderson Cooper and former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, and went on to describe Hixson’s opponent David Sterling as a “true conservative.”
“The announcer came on the TV and said, ‘We need David Sterling on the Supreme Court to stop Nancy Pelosi,’” Hixson said. “And I’m thinking to myself, what in the heck does the Arkansas Supreme Court have to do with Nancy Pelosi and Anderson Cooper?”
Sterling also faced criticism in 2014 in his unsuccessful bid for Attorney General. Back then, the Judicial Crisis Network ran ads on Arkansas airwaves targeting his opponent, now the incumbent Leslie Rutledge. Sterling told KUAR News he’s never coordinated with any outside groups, but he’s hesitant to condemn the attacks on his challengers.
“[The] United States Supreme Court has ruled that these third parties have a right to speak,” Sterling said. “So I’m not going to criticize them for necessarily speaking. I would just hope that when they do speak, they speak in an honest and ethical manner.”
But just how partisan are nonpartisan judicial races? Arkansas is one of eight states that select all judges through nonpartisan elections, where candidates are not affiliated with a political party. But candidates and voters say the elections have taken a marked political tone.
One factor is fundraising, which can be difficult for low-profile races like the Supreme Court. Both Hixson and Goodson say they can’t afford television advertising, which means they rely on word-of-mouth campaigning to spread their message.
Though he supports having elected judges, Hixson said there simply isn’t enough time from filing day to the election for a candidate to campaign around the state.
“The result is is that the voter does not get enough information on the candidate.,” Hixson said. “And once you start relying on the internet and TV, that’s when dark money comes in and it brings up trash and sewage and all sorts of pollutants.”
Goodson agreed that the pressure of campaigning leaves a void where election integrity is exploitable.
“I am a working mother of three. There is no possible way that I can afford to purchase every ad on television to counter their ad,” Goodson said.
In response to the ads, Goodson filed suit against local broadcasters in an attempt to stop them from running. The circuit judge presiding over the case soon recused himself after ties between his wife and Goodson’s husband were revealed, but not before he granted a temporary restraining order blocking the ads.
Both David Sterling and the Arkansas branch of the American Civil Liberties Union agree that attempting to censor political speech is unconstitutional.
“Those things are going to be hashed out in court, but to take the step of actually restricting speech, particularly political speech this close to an election, is fairly concerning,” Sterling said.
Hixson said the solution to the Arkansas “judicial crisis” should come from Washington, the same place where it began.
“We have a lot of king-sized brains in Washington, D.C.,” Hixson said. “I think someone has to figure out how we can reasonably regulate political speech, especially in nonpartisan elections, and still maintain the First Amendment right of free speech.”