Arkansas governor names state GOP chairman, former federal prosecutor to Supreme Court seat

Cody Hiland speaks at the old state Supreme Court chamber at the Arkansas Capitol in Little Rock, Ark., Monday, July 3, 2023, after Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, right, announced his appointment to the Supreme Court. Hiland will fill the vacancy of Justice Robin Wynne, who died in June. (AP Photo/Andrew DeMillo)

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Monday named state Republican Party chairman and former federal prosecutor Cody Hiland to the Arkansas Supreme Court, giving it a conservative majority as justices prepare to take up a challenge to her education overhaul.

Hiland was appointed to fill the vacancy created by the death of Justice Robin Wynne last month and will hold the seat until 2025 when a newly elected justice takes office. Hiland can’t run in next year’s election for the seat since he was appointed.

The appointment pushes further to the right a court that’s been the focus of expensive and heated races in recent years. Arkansas’ Supreme Court seats are nonpartisan, but conservative groups have spent heavily over the years trying to flip control of the seven-member court.

“This is the first time the Arkansas Supreme Court will have a conservative majority, and I know it will have the same effect on our state as it has had on our country,” Sanders said, announcing the appointment at the old Supreme Court chamber in the state Capitol.

Hiland had been nominated as U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas by President Donald Trump in 2017 and served in that position through 2020. He is a former state prosecutor and has served as state GOP chairman since December. He also worked on Sanders’ campaign for governor as a senior adviser.

“He will be there to call balls and strikes, interpreting state law as it is written and leaving the legislating to the Legislature,” Sanders said.

Hiland said he was humbled by the opportunity.

“My prayer is at the end of this term people will say that I brought honor to the title of associate Supreme Court justice,” Hiland said.

Hiland joined the court as the state is appealing a judge’s decision to block enforcement of Sanders’ education overhaul until Aug. 1. The Pulaski County circuit judge ruled that lawmakers didn’t follow correct procedures for the law to take effect immediately after Sanders signed it.

The Supreme Court last monthlifted a similar temporary order from the same judge. Wynne was one of two justices to dissent from that decision.

Democrats criticized Sanders over the court appointment, saying it goes against the nonpartisan spirit of the court.

“Americans are concerned that our courts are becoming too partisan, and the governor justifies those fears when she appoints a former campaign employee, the current Republican Party chair, to Arkansas’s highest court,” State Party Chairman Grant Tennille said in a statement.

Hiland resigned from his party chairmanship on Monday before the appointment, and Sanders endorsed Joseph Wood to be his successor. Wood is secretary of the state Department of Transformation and Shared Services and had previously served two terms as a Washington County judge.

Hiland is joining the court as a race is shaping up among its members to replace Chief Justice Dan Kemp, who is not seeking reelection next year. Justices Rhonda Wood and Karen Baker are running for chief justice in next year’s election, and Justice Barbara Webb is considering running as well.