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Arkansas voters have erred each time this decade they've elected a justice to the Arkansas Supreme Court.

That helps explain why the nation's wise and principled founders didn't want the people electing judges at the national level.

Matters of law and justice do not always blend well with matters of politics. The founders conceived of an independent allegiance to the law that protected the rights of the few against the tyranny of the majority. The mob's instinct is to oppress.

The first state to introduce popular election of state Supreme Court justices was Mississippi. Now there's a state you want to emulate, isn't it?

Arkansas voters likely will err again today in the race for chief justice of the Supreme Court. That's hopeful news for Courtney Goodson, although the relative merit of the candidates got a little fuzzy in the last few days. By campaign's end, the quality of the two competing candidates offered another reason to stop electing them.

We need to set up a system of merit-selection and gubernatorial appointment. We need to reach deeper into the state's lawyer pool to tap the real gravitas and talent. The most-qualified candidates tend to have entirely too much sense and self-respect to endure this affront we call a judicial election.

In 2010 Arkansas voters elected a young recent law clerk named Courtney Henry over veteran lawyer John Fogleman. Henry proceeded to get a divorce and remarry a politically hyperactive class-action lawyer of dubious methods named John Goodson, who joined other class-action partners in lathering all the Supreme Court justices with campaign contributions. Goodson went on to politicize cases like the gay-marriage one, concocting nonsensical delays to stall for the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling that would take her off the political hook as she prepared to run for the chief justice's job.

In 2012, Arkansas voters elected Jo Hart over Raymond Abramson, giving us, in Hart, an ally of Goodson in the aforementioned politicization and manipulation. Hart had "judge" before her name, and Abramson didn't, and she had a memorable television commercial, and he didn't, so she became an Arkansas Supreme Court justice and he didn't.

In 2014, Arkansas voters favored Robin Wynne over Tim Cullen, giving us, in Wynne, an ally of Goodson and Hart, and Karen Baker, and maybe Rhonda Wood, in the court's game-playing and general soap opera culture.

A seven-member court with Fogleman instead of Goodson, Abramson instead of Hart, and Cullen instead of Wynne would be less a soap opera, less petty and altogether better.

So what we'll decide today is whether Courtney Goodson steps up to chief justice or stays as associate justice while Circuit Judge Dan Kemp of Mountain View becomes chief justice.

What mainly commended Kemp all along was the compelling factor that he was not Courtney Goodson.

In the last days of the campaign, scalp-collecting blogger Matt Campbell of the Blue Hog Report quoted Goodson-backing Sheffield Nelson as saying that a prominent man in Mountain View had told him that Kemp hit him up for campaign money shortly after approving a plea arrangement for the man's daughter on drug charges.

Kemp denied asking the man for money, which a judge candidate is not to do. But he acknowledged calling the man within 10 days or so of the plea deal's completion, simply, he said, to say that he was free to ask for the man's support--general, not financial--since the daughter's case was history.

The only solid conclusion was this one: Another reason to stop electing at least our appellate-level judges is this charade by which they are not to ask directly for money, or know who gave them money. The judgeship candidates don't go to their fundraisers wearing blindfolds. Goodson knew that her hit-man and opponent's hearsay accuser, Sheffield Nelson, was a donor because he hosted a fundraiser in her behalf that she attended.

The other good reason to stop electing judges is the recent advent of out-of-state dark money that floods the state with absurdly cynical television attacks mainly to send messages to all judges that they'd best rule as the right wing desires unless they want the same slime.

Some people tell me that the financially advantaged Goodson, whose rich and political husband has been tight with both the Mike Beebe and Asa Hutchinson administrations, could well wind up a Supreme Court justice in a governor-appointed method as well.

Maybe. But she might not survive a system of merit selection by which a peer-review committee would certify potential judges as qualified before the governor could nominate them.

Anyway, let's not make the perfect the enemy of the good.

A system of merit selection, gubernatorial nomination, Senate confirmation and an up-or-down popular vote on whether to retain an appointed judge after one term--could we please step up our contemplation of a constitutional amendment to accomplish that?

It may the only way to stop the voters' losing streak.

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John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, was inducted into the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame in 2014. Email him at jbrummett@arkansasonline.com. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

Editorial on 03/01/2016

Print Headline: On a losing streak

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