- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 2, 2016

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Citing the record-breaking amount of spending by outside groups on two state Supreme Court races, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Wednesday he wants lawmakers to look at ending the popular election of justices.

The Republican governor said he’d likely support an effort next year to ask voters to approve having justices to the state’s highest court appointed rather than elected following the flurry of outside-funded attack ads and mailers leading up to Tuesday’s election.

“Regrettably, a winner in yesterday’s campaign was dark money,” Hutchinson told members of the Political Animals Club at the Governor’s Mansion.

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.

One group, the Judicial Crisis Network, spent more than $600,000 on television ads portraying Goodson as an insider for accepting gifts and contributions from trial attorneys. A mailer called the justice President Barack Obama’s “rubber stamp” for the court’s 2014 ruling striking down Arkansas’ voter ID law.

Another group, the Republican State Leadership Committee, said it spent more than $500,000 on ads and mailers in that race and other open seat on the high court for which Circuit Judge Shawn Womack defeated Little Rock attorney Clark Mason. The committee ran 30-second spots accusing Mason of charging high fees to his clients, dubbing him “Clark ‘Ka-Ching’ Mason.”

The Judicial Crisis Network, classified as a nonprofit “social welfare organization,” isn’t required by law to disclose its donors. Top donors to the committee have included business interests such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Bentonville-based Wal-Mart.

Watchdog groups have said the Arkansas campaigns signal that outside spending will be a growing influence on judicial races nationwide this year.

“The high spending, out-of-state money and harsh attack ads we’ve seen in this year’s Arkansas Supreme Court race make it the latest example of some of the worst trends in judicial elections across the U.S.,” said Susan Liss, executive director of Justice at Stake, which tracks spending in judicial elections.

A state lawmaker has said he plans to try again with a plan to set up a 15-member commission to recommend nominees for the court, with the governor appointing justices. Under the proposal, which would have to go before voters, justices would face “retention” elections when their terms end.

During the campaign, both Goodson and Kemp said they opposed efforts to end the popular election of justices. Goodson, who has two years remaining on her term on the court, said Tuesday night she wanted to spend that time “ridding Arkansas of anonymous dark money judicial campaigns.”

Top Democrats in the House and Senate asked Hutchinson to include a proposal to require outside groups to disclose donors and spending in campaigns on the agenda for next month’s special legislative session.

Kemp said he thinks the changes he campaigned on, including stricter recusal rules for judges, would help address the concerns. Kemp said preventing outside groups’ involvement in the state would be difficult, given the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling that opened the door for unlimited political spending by corporations, unions and other interest groups.

“That’s the playing field that we played on and will be playing on the way I see it,” he said.


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

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