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Arkansas Justice Again Fending Off Outside Spending

Courtney Goodson (L), Kenneth Hixson (C), David Sterling (R). Early voting opens Monday, May 7, 2018 for the May 22, 2018 primary. (AP)

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — A conservative interest group that spent heavily two years ago to keep a member of the Arkansas Supreme Court from becoming chief justice has her in its sights again, though it’s unclear why it has singled out her instead of the two men running for her seat, since all three have hinted at or touted conservative views.

The Judicial Crisis Network, which spent more than $600,000 on ads targeting Justice Courtney Goodson during her unsuccessful bid for chief justice, has spent more than $160,000 on a new round of TV spots criticizing Goodson during her re-election campaign. Goodson is running against David Sterling, the chief counsel for the Arkansas Department of Human Services and state Appeals Court Judge Kenneth Hixson in the May 22 non-partisan election. The top two candidates will go to a runoff in the November election if no one wins a majority of the vote.

Goodson is promoting her experience on the court, saying she adds stability to the seven-member panel. She said she hopes to prevent outside groups from swaying the election.

“I think that this race, this seat on the Arkansas Supreme Court, belongs to the people of Arkansas and we should have Arkansans’ voice in the conversation about who would serve them best,” Goodson said a week before the ads began. “We do not need outside influences coming from places unknown.”

All three candidates have made appeals to the right in a predominantly Republican state. During her 2016 chief justice bid, Goodson had the endorsement of the National Rifle Association and launched her campaign with a splashy video vowing to represent “conservative” values. Sterling lost the Republican nomination for attorney general four years ago and his campaign material notes his membership in the NRA and the conservative Federalist Society. Hixson regularly promises to oppose “judicial activism,” a favorite rallying point for Republicans.

But Judicial Crisis Network has focused solely on Goodson, with its latest ad criticizing her over donor gifts and a pay increase the court requested last year. The group, which doesn’t disclose its own donors, targeted Goodson two years ago for the court’s unanimous 2014 decision striking down Arkansas’ voter ID law. Goodson last week was among the six-justice majority that allowed a revised version of the law to be enforced in the May primary election. A second group, the Republican State Leadership Committee, said Friday it’s spending $200,000 on TV ads backing Sterling. Those spots don’t mention Goodson.

The Judicial Crisis Network has also accused Goodson, whose husband John Goodson is a Texarkana attorney, of siding too often with trial lawyers in her decisions. The group, however, did not specify when asked last week what ruling or rulings by Goodson prompted the series of ads against the justice.

Sterling and Hixson have avoided directly criticizing Goodson. Sterling, who has served as the Department of Human Services’ top attorney since 2015, ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination for attorney general in 2014 and touts his two decades of experience as a lawyer.

“Really what I’m offering to the people of Arkansas is someone who does understand separation of powers, who does understand the concept of judicial restraint and who is an originalist and textualist when it comes to interpreting the Constitution and statutes lawfully enacted by our Legislature,” Sterling said.

Hixson, who has served on the state Appeals Court since 2013, has made similar statements about his approach to law and the court.

“When I go all over the state … the most common complaint I hear from ordinary citizens is our Supreme Court has gotten too political,” he said.

Goodson criticized her challengers for not offering specific complaints about the court, saying they were “trying to paint with a broad brush.”

The race comes months after Goodson and other members of the court faced criticism from conservatives for halting three of the eight executions that Arkansas planned to carry out in April 2017. The state ultimately put four men to death that month after a federal judge halted another execution. Goodson was part of the four-justice majority that halted the three executions.

“There’s no case with graver consequences than in death penalty (and) execution matters in this entire country. We must ensure that we do it right,” Goodson said. “Maybe someone thinks that they could do it better, but I have done it. I can sleep at night knowing that the decisions I’ve made are right.”

Both Hixson and Sterling said they wouldn’t criticize Goodson over the execution rulings. When he ran for attorney general four years ago, Sterling said the state should use the electric chair if it can’t carry out executions via lethal injection.