- Associated Press - Saturday, March 26, 2016

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - After conservative outside groups spent big on a pair of Arkansas Supreme Court races with a barrage of attack ads and mailers, state lawmakers are measuring how much of an appetite there is for new campaign finance restrictions and ending the popular election of justices.

The Senate Judiciary Committee’s meeting this week will be the first test on whether there’s a path forward for either of the proposed changes this year. It’s expected to feature two sitting justices, including one whose bid to lead the court was derailed by the influx of outside spending.

“We’re doing it now primarily because I think there’s momentum to do it,” said Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, a Republican who chairs the panel. “Regardless of who people were pulling for in the last election I don’t think anybody liked the millions of dollars in dark money coming in.”

The panel’s meeting comes after candidates and outside groups spent more than $1.3 million on TV ads in the two high court races, more than double the previous record for a judicial election in Arkansas. The bulk of the money went toward the chief justice race, in which Circuit Judge Dan Kemp defeated Justice Courtney Goodson. Two groups regularly attacked Goodson in ads and mailers.

Goodson and Justice Karen Baker are scheduled to speak before the panel, along with representatives from the Arkansas Trial Lawyers Association and the Arkansas Bar Association.

Hutchinson is gauging whether there’s support for trying to put on the November ballot an amendment that would have justices appointed rather than popularly elected. He’s eyeing a provision in the constitution that allows lawmakers to refer an additional measure to voters dealing with merit selection of justices.

At the same time, Democratic lawmakers have been urging Gov. Asa Hutchinson to put a series of campaign finance measures on the agenda for a special session later this year. The proposals include legislation requiring disclosure from groups spending money on ads in races.

The effort is aimed at “dark money” groups like Judicial Crisis Network that aren’t required by federal law to disclose their donors.

Democratic Rep. Clarke Tucker of Little Rock, who had tried similar legislation in last year’s session, is slated to speak before the Senate panel on Wednesday and is hopeful that the influx of outside money during the high court races shows the need for such measures.

“My hope is that people have been able to tangibly see the harm that results from groups outside Arkansas coming in and trying to influence the outcome of our elections and the people of Arkansas not knowing who’s doing that,” Tucker said.

Both ideas face an uphill climb in getting support, at least this quickly. Though the governor has said he supports looking at merit selection of justices, the idea faces resistance from members of the court. Goodson and Kemp both said during their bids that voters should have a say in who serves on the state’s highest court.

The bigger difficulty for either idea is finding support when lawmakers are focused on even more contentious battles over the future of the state’s Medicaid expansion and highway funding. The governor has said he wants to keep a special session scheduled for April 6 focused on Medicaid, but has left open the possibility of adding other items to the session he plans later this spring on highways.

“I think the other issues we’re dealing with are going to be so controversial that it will be difficult to even get people’s attention on it,” said Sen. Hutchinson, who is also the governor’s nephew. I don’t think it’s likely, but I think it is possible and for my part I want to try to do it.”

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Andrew DeMillo has covered Arkansas government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo

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