Goodson, Sterling in Arkansas Supreme Court runoff

Posted: May 23, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.
Updated: May 23, 2018 at 2:35 p.m.

Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Courtney Goodson and David Sterling

Targeted by out-of-state attack ads, Supreme Court Justice Courtney Goodson survived an initial round of voting Tuesday and advanced to a November runoff election where she will face David Sterling, the beneficiary of outside spending.

Court of Appeals Judge Kenneth Hixson, who also had been the target of attack ads, fell short in the three-way race.

Speaking from her home in Fayetteville, Goodson called the results a "huge victory for honest people who are fed up with the lies dark money has spread about me."

The justice, who is in the last year of her first eight-year term, said she is prepared in the runoff to continue speaking out against the influence of outside groups.

[ELECTIONS COVERAGE: Find all results + stories]

Sterling held a campaign rally Tuesday night in downtown Little Rock, where he told supporters that most voters had favored someone other than Goodson, and were "looking for a change in the highest court."

Hixson said before final results were in late Tuesday that he would hold out hope in the election until the end. "I never give up until the jury comes back," he said.

With 2,694 of the 2,749 precincts reporting, the unofficial results were:

Goodson 114,053

Sterling 102,581

Hixson 88,040

No sitting Arkansas Supreme Court justice has lost a re-election race since at least 1976, the earliest year in which online election records are available from the secretary of state's office.

Goodson's share of the three-way vote was her lowest showing in three races for the state's highest court. In her unsuccessful 2016 bid for chief justice, Goodson earned 42 percent of the vote, and in 2010 she received 57 percent to join the high court.

In circuit court last week, her lawyers pointed to the justice's declining vote totals as they attempted to build a case about the influence of outside spending in Arkansas' judicial elections. Since 2010, two other candidates for the high court have lost their election campaigns after being hit by ads funded by out-of-state groups.

"The past is undeniable," said Lauren Hoover, Goodson's attorney. "In every race in which these folks from D.C. have been involved, run dark money, the candidate that had their support won."

With three candidates on the Supreme Court ballot this year, the Judicial Crisis Network, based in Washington, D.C., decided to go after two of them with ads that declared Hixson as "soft on crime" and Goodson as a "rich insider." The group isn't required to disclose its donors.

Another Washington-based group, the Republican State Leadership Committee, spent more than $500,000 to support Sterling, though that group's donors are disclosed on tax filings.

In total, the two groups spent more than $1 million on Arkansas' Supreme Court race, dwarfing the roughly $150,000 spent collectively by the candidates themselves.

Sterling, a 49-year-old chief attorney at the Department of Human Services, steadfastly denied any involvement in the ads, though he also never repudiated the message they delivered.

"We all say we hate negative ads, but the reality and the scholarship shows that we're motivated by them," said Janine Parry, a political scientist at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.

Based on unofficial results, Hixson won in Pulaski County, the state's largest county, but Goodson took many of the smaller counties around the state, where the attack ads aired in larger media markets may not have aired.

Hixson, 62, and Goodson, 45, took separate approaches in responding to the attacks.

At first, Goodson posted direct-to-voter pleas on her campaign social media accounts, but as the negative ads increased, she and her lawyers turned to the courts. A trio of lawsuits filed in Fayetteville, Fort Smith and Little Rock netted the justice temporary orders that halted the ads, at least for a bit, in Little Rock and Fayetteville.

But later intervention by Washington County Circuit Judge Doug Martin caused her campaign further trouble last week after it was reported that Martin's wife had financial ties to the firm of Goodson's husband, John Goodson. Martin had ordered negative ads against Justice Goodson taken off the air.

Goodson's campaign asked Martin to recuse from the case, which he did. The case was appointed to a special circuit judge who normally works in Pulaski County. That judge reversed Martin's order, finding that the ads were likely protected speech. But a circuit judge in Pulaski County assigned to the lawsuit filed in Little Rock put a stop to the ads there. The result of the two orders meant that TV ads critical of Goodson were allowed to run in Northwest Arkansas in the final weekend of the campaign, but not in Little Rock.

As polls approached their 7:30 p.m. closing time Tuesday, cable company Comcast gave notice that it would appeal the injunction to the Arkansas Supreme Court, which would require Goodson to recuse if the case is heard.

Hixson chose to forgo any legal efforts, and he instead denounced the involvement of the outside groups. He spent his campaign cash on TV ads portraying his upbringing in rural Paris in Logan County.

Because the race is nonpartisan and governed by strict ethics rules limiting what candidates can say about their intentions once elected, all three hopefuls gave their pitches in broad terms throughout the campaign.

As one of the longest-serving current justices, Goodson touted her experience and the efforts of her and her colleagues to manage a backlog of cases.

But Hixson, who has more total years of experience practicing law, also claimed experience and promised to make the court less "political," even though he could not point to examples of his claims regarding the court's opinions.

Sterling espoused "judicial conservatism" and made his ties to groups such as the Christian Legal Society and the National Rifle Association known on campaign material.

In fact, few issues actually dealing with Goodson's work on the court -- other than gifts and campaign contributions she received -- ever became part of the campaign.

As a justice, Goodson has written several high-profile opinions, including one to uphold the state's Method of Execution Act. She joined in a unanimous ruling by the court in 2016 to overturn a "tort reform" measure from the ballot, angering many Republicans and business groups.

In 2015, Goodson was one of four justices investigated, and cleared, by the state Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission on allegations that they intentionally delayed ruling in a same-sex marriage case until after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled separately to legalize such marriages across the country.

In an interview during the campaign, Goodson denied that the justices had delayed the case for political purposes. None of her opponents in this race mentioned the matter to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Information for this article was contributed by Ginny Monk of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Ruthie Johnson ponders her ballot at a precinct at Harris Elementary School in North Little Rock.

Kenneth Hixson

A Section on 05/23/2018