3 justices locked in tight battle for runoff spots to lead Arkansas Supreme Court

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Three Arkansas Supreme Court justices were locked in a tight battle to advance to a runoff election for chief justice this fall, in a race that could give the court its first woman elected to lead the seven−member panel.

Justices Karen Baker, Barbara Webb and Rhonda Wood were leading the four−candidate race for chief justice on Tuesday in an election that remained too early to call. Former state legislator Jay Martin was also running for the chief justice post.

Justice Courtney Hudson was reelected in another race, and her victory handed Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders a new appointment to the court.

Hudson defeated Circuit Judge Carlton Jones in the race for position two on the court. The two were running to replace Justice Cody Hiland, who Sanders appointed last year.

Baker, Martin, Webb and Wood 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. It would also hand Sanders another appointment on the court to fill, in addition to Hudson’s vacancy.

Sanders declined to say who she voted for in the races after casting her ballot at a Little Rock community center Tuesday morning.

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.

Hudson’s victory will create a vacancy on the court in January when she takes the position two seat. The incumbent justice ran for Hiland’s seat in an effort to serve more time on the court because of the state’s judicial retirement rules.

Sanders appointed Hiland to the court last year to fill the vacancy created by Justice Robin Wynne’s death. Hiland, a former state Republican Party chairman and federal prosecutor, was not allowed to run for the seat since he had been appointed to it.

Hudson said she wanted to honor Wynne and his family, and thanked the people of Arkansas for their support.

“I’d like continue what I’ve always done in providing senior leadership on the court and ensuring that our focus remains on the constitution and that the rule of law always wins the day, and being a good judge," Hudson told The Associated Press Tuesday night.

Jones would have become the first Black justice elected to the court if he had won the race.

Arkansas’ court races have been the focus of outside conservative groups in recent years, and Hudson in 2018 sued to block ads from the groups that targeted her. Those groups, however, stayed away this year’s court race.

Two of the candidates for chief justice have Republican Party ties: Webb is married to a former state GOP chairman and Wood was appointed to a judgeship by Sanders’ father, former Gov. Mike Huckabee. Martin ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for governor two years ago touting his opposition to abortion.

Baker won reelection in 2022, defeating a former Republican lawmaker who touted himself as a constitutional conservative.

Andrew Demillo, The Associated Press

Photo: AP