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story.lead_photo.caption Challengers lead fundraising over Supreme Court justice - Photo by Arkansas Democrat-Gazette / SOURCE: Arkansas Secretary of State

Court of Appeals Judge Kenneth Hixson collected more campaign contributions for his state Supreme Court race in April than his two opponents -- incumbent Associate Justice Courtney Goodson and lawyer David Sterling -- combined.

Hixson received $82,389, according to campaign finance disclosure reports submitted last week. Goodson, seeking a second term on the state's highest court, reported $41,060 for April; Sterling, $36,599.

Hixson also has the highest fundraising total overall, with $122,107. Sterling reports $87,760 and Goodson, $62,075, according to electronic contribution and loan data filed with the Arkansas secretary of state.

But direct contributions to the three candidates are just a fraction of spending in this campaign, which has been dominated in recent weeks by attack ads from out-of-state groups that don't disclose their donors.

Voting in the nonpartisan race ends Tuesday.

April's contribution reports list well-known business and political figures.

Arvest Bank board chairman Jim Walton and wife, Lynne, gave to Hixson's effort. So did Stephens Inc. chief operating officer Curt Bradbury, Murphy USA chairman Madison Murphy, Simmons Foods poultry executives Mark and Todd Simmons and Tyson Foods consultant Archie Schaffer. Others included Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Randy Zook and former Arkansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Howard Brill.

Hixson thinks his legal experience has helped attract contributors. He cites 30 years as a lawyer trying at least 100 cases and arguing before the state Supreme Court and federal appellate courts, plus six years as a state appeals court judge writing more than 325 opinions.

"That's why I think I'm qualified," Hixson said in an interview last week.

Goodson's largest contributors in April included businessman Mark Waldrip, who serves on the University of Arkansas board of trustees with Goodson's husband, John, and Waldrip's wife, Angela. Another contributor was the political action committee of former legislator Bruce Hawkins' lobbying firm, DBH Management Consultants.

Officials for Goodson's campaign did not respond to calls for comment.

Sterling campaign donors in April included Lisenne Rockefeller, president of Winrock Farms; Mountaire Corp. chairman Ronald Cameron; and Joe Maynard, a Fayetteville businessman connected with the Conduit for Action PAC. Conduit for Action identifies itself as an advocacy nonprofit that supports legislation favorable to small business and that reduces regulation.

Sterling wrote in an email that he was "thrilled with the level of support our campaign has received" and "comfortable our campaign has raised the money we need to deliver our message to Arkansas voters."

This year's Arkansas Supreme Court race marks at least the fourth time in the past four years that a contest for the high court has attracted what is known as "dark-money" advertising.

In the three previous races, candidates who were targeted by negative ads lost. They are lawyers Tim Cullen in 2014 and Clark Mason in 2016, and Goodson in her 2016 bid for chief justice.

The attack ads this year by the Judicial Crisis Network and Republican State Leadership Committee have focused on Goodson and Hixson. Only Sterling, chief counsel for the Arkansas Department of Human Services who ran unsuccessfully for attorney general in 2016, has remained unscathed.

Hixson said he doesn't know who's behind the ads, but he was critical of Sterling.

"It looks like dark money is supporting David Sterling to the tune of $2 million," Hixson said.

Sterling "said he doesn't have any connection" to the groups paying for the ads, Hixson said. "But he hasn't spent a dime on a TV ad. That tells me [he thinks] 'I don't have to spend my money because I know someone is going to do it for me.'

"That's a question Arkansans need to ponder on," Hixson said.

Sterling has denied any coordination with groups running ads against his opponents.

Asked about Hixson's comment, Sterling wrote: "I'm more interested in talking with Arkansans than keeping up with what other candidates are doing."

The attack ads prompted Goodson to file lawsuits last week seeking to stop television stations from airing them. On Friday, a circuit judge in Little Rock ruled in her favor, but a special judge in the same circuit ruled that the ads are protected by the First Amendment.

The effect of the conflicting rulings is that, three days before the election, voters in Northwest Arkansas will be able to see the ads, while voters in the Little Rock media market will not.

Except for "dark-money" advertising, the only Supreme Court race on the ballot this year remains a relatively low-spending contest compared with some past high-court races.

Goodson reported spending more than $1 million in her unsuccessful race for chief justice two years ago. When she was first elected to the high court in 2010, she reported $657,000 in expenditures.

Photo by Special to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
Kenneth Hixson
Photo by Special to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
David Sterling
Photo by Special to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
Justice Courtney Goodson

SundayMonday on 05/20/2018

Print Headline: High-court rivals report on finances

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