- Associated Press - Friday, December 16, 2016

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Arkansas’ highest court said Friday it opposes ending the popular election of justices and judges, pushing back against an effort in the Legislature next year to move toward appointing those on the bench following two state Supreme Court races that were overshadowed by big spending by outside groups.

Five members of the state Supreme Court as well as two incoming members - including Chief Justice-Elect Dan Kemp, issued a resolution opposing any plan to appoint rather than elect the state’s judges. Justices cited several problems with so-called merit selection of judges, saying it would strip citizens of their right to select those on the bench and pose potential separation of power issues.

“Our court was created by people, to serve the people, to uphold the law for the people,” the justices said in the resolution.

Arkansas lawmakers are expected to look at ending popular election of justices and potentially other judges after outside groups and candidates spent more than $1.3 million on television ads in the March 1 election for two state Supreme Court seats, more than doubling the record for such spending in a judicial election in Arkansas. Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson has said he thinks lawmakers should look at appointing rather than electing justices. Such a move would require voters amending the state’s constitution.

Hutchinson, who called it “a little unusual” that the Supreme Court commented on what he said was a political matter, said he still wants lawmakers to look at a new process for selecting justices but didn’t endorse a specific approach.

“I don’t think there’s a consensus for what that process should be and I want to see how that develops,” Hutchinson told reporters.

Republican Rep. Matthew Shepherd said he expects to try again with his proposal to end popular election of Supreme Court justices. Shepherd’s proposal last year would have set up a 15-member commission to recommend nominees for the court, with the governor appointing justices. Under the proposal, justices would face “retention” elections when their terms end. Shepherd and other advocates of merit selection have said appointing judges could help insulate the court from politics and donor influence.

“It’s a matter of the detail,” Shepherd said. “For us to put something forward or for me to put something forward, I want to know there’s some consensus at the outset.”

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Follow Andrew DeMillo on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo

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