Arkansas voters could make history with 2 Supreme Court races, including crowded chief justice race

A win by the sitting justices in either race would give Governor Sanders new appointments to the court.
Jay Martin talks to reporters at the Arkansas state Capitol, Feb. 22, 2022, in Little Rock, Ark. (AP Photo/Andrew DeMillo)

Arkansas voters could make history in two races for the state Supreme Court in Tuesday’s election, with candidates vying to become the first elected Black justice and the first woman elected to lead the court.

The races could also expand Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ influence, paving the way for her to appoint new justices after conservative groups spent heavily in recent years trying to push the court further to the right.

Three of the court’s seven justices — Karen Baker, Barbara Webb and Rhonda Wood — are running against former state legislator Jay Martin for chief justice. If none of the candidates win a majority, the top two will advance to a November runoff.

The four are running to succeed Chief Justice Dan Kemp, who was first elected in 2016 and is not seeking reelection. A win by one of the three sitting justices would give the court its first woman elected chief justice in history.

Justice Courtney Hudson is running against Circuit Judge Carlton Jones for another seat on the court. The two are seeking to replace Justice Cody Hiland, who Sanders appointed to the court last year.

If Jones wins the race, he’ll be the first elected Black justice on the court and the first Black statewide elected official in Arkansas since Reconstruction.

The conservative groups that have spent heavily on court races in Arkansas have stayed on the sideline in this year’s races so far. The candidates in the races have been trying to appeal to conservatives in the nonpartisan judicial races.

A win by the sitting justices in either of Tuesday’s races would give Sanders new appointments to the court. Hudson is running for a seat other than the one she currently holds in an effort to serve more time in office due to judicial retirement rules.

The seats are up as the state’s highest court is poised to take up key cases in several high-profile areas. Abortion rights supporters are trying to get a measure on the November ballot that would scale back a ban on the procedure that took effect when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade.

The court has also been asked to weigh in on a fight between Sanders and the state Board of Corrections over who runs Arkansas’ prison system. Attorney General Tim Griffin is appealing a judge’s ruling against a law Sanders signed that took away the board’s ability to hire and fire the state’s top corrections official.