Four facing off in Arkansas Supreme Court chief justice race

The four candidates for chief justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court in March 2024 are (from left) Justices Rhonda Wood and Barbara Webb, former state Rep. Jay Martin and Justice Karen Baker. (Courtesy photos)
The four candidates for chief justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court in March 2024 are (from left) Justices Rhonda Wood and Barbara Webb, former state Rep. Jay Martin and Justice Karen Baker. (Courtesy photos)

Next month’s race for chief justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court is a four-person contest, with three members of the state’s highest court and a former state representative vying for the post.

Voters will go to the polls on March 5 to choose a successor for retiring Chief Justice Dan Kemp. Arkansas’ judges are selected in non-partisan elections that are held simultaneously with the state’s political primaries. Early voting begins Tuesday.

Unless one candidate captures a majority of votes next month, the race will be decided in a run-off election that will be held in conjunction with the Nov. 5 presidential election. The winner will take office on Jan. 1.

Kemp, 72, of Mountain View is stepping aside after one term due to a law that requires circuit judges and higher to forfeit their retirement benefits if they run for judicial office after turning 70.

The Supreme Court is the ultimate arbiter of Arkansas constitutional issues. There are seven justices, including the chief. The chief justice serves an eight-year term like the state’s other six justices and the chief’s vote also counts the same as those of the other justices. Court decisions are written by justices chosen through random selection by computer from among the majority.

The chief justice, who earns $202,987, also handles administrative duties and typically is the liaison, if not the face, of the state’s judiciary to lawmakers and the public by delivering the annual state of the judiciary address.

Seeking to succeed Kemp are attorney Jay Martin of Little Rock, a former state representative, and three justices, Karen Baker, Barbara Webb and Rhonda Wood.

RHONDA WOOD

Wood, of Conway, has a campaign site at www.woodforjustice.com as well as a social media presence at www.facebook.com/JudgeRhondaWood and www.instagram.com/judgerhonda_wood.

First elected to the Supreme Court in 2014 after two years on the Arkansas Court of Appeals, Wood, 54, began her second term on the high court in 2023. With six years left, Wood, a graduate of Hendrix College and the William H Bowen School of Law, where she was also an assistant dean, said she brings the best blend of judicial experience and work ethic to the position.

“In this rapidly changing world, I believe it’s vital that Arkansas have a chief justice with judicial leadership experience and the work ethic and commitment to maintaining the proper role of the court and upholding our constitution. I have the breadth of experience in the judiciary that is unparalleled,” she said. “Now in my 18th year, I have served six years on the trial bench, two on the Court of Appeals, and am in my 10th year on the Supreme Court. I am the only judge in the state to be nationally certified in strategic court planning and to have sat on national judicial education boards. A chief justice must be a leader who can work with all three branches and lead change. I have uniquely done this.”

Asked what single attribute has made her successful as a judge, Wood said it’s the lesson of courage taught by her parents.

“I developed it from a young girl when my parents taught me to always stand up for what was right, not what was popular,” she said. “I had the courage to ask Arkansans to let me serve them six times. I courageously uphold the rule of law and constitution and ignore the pressure to do what may be more popular.

BARBARA WEBB

Webb’s campaign sites are WebbforArkansas.com and www.facebook.com/WebbForAR. Three years a justice after being elected to the high court in 2020, Webb, 66, of Benton said she’s seeking the chief seat because the next chief justice “needs to be principled, conservative and experienced.”

“I am hard-working and open-minded to looking at new ways of doing things. I approach a problem with common sense and logic,” she said when asked to describe what has made her a successful judge. “I do not hesitate from taking on a challenge or worthy cause that other people might shy away from due to difficulty or personal consequences. I listen to all points of view and treat others as I would want to be treated.

Webb said she’s been called on twice to take over troubled offices, first by voters to be the elected Saline County prosecutor, the first woman to hold such a post, and then by the governor to be the county’s circuit judge, a first in the county.

“As the elected prosecuting attorney, I took over the office after the former prosecutor was investigated and later convicted of running the office as a criminal enterprise. We cleaned up the office, trying hundreds of jury trials and shutting down hundreds of meth labs,” she said. “As circuit judge, I presided over a large docket of cases following the prior judge’s conviction and resignation for failing to pay income taxes. In each case, I stepped forward to serve and improve the administration of justice. “

Webb, a graduate of the University of Arkansas and the William H. Bowen School of Law in Little Rock, said she will also bring practical experience to the role, citing her tenure as chief of the Arkansas Workers’ Compensation Commission where she was also administrative judge.

“I have over four decades of courtroom experience at all levels of the judicial system from private practice to prosecuting attorney to circuit judge to justice on the Supreme Court,” Webb said. “As chief executive officer of a state agency, I managed over a hundred employees, and was responsible for the agency’s budget and daily operations. As chief administrative law judge, I oversaw the other administrative law judges and their caseloads.”

JAY MARTIN

Martin, 54, has the campaign web site is jaymartinforchiefjustice.com and is also on social media with Jaymartinforcj on X, the former Twitter, Instagram at jaymartinforchiefjustice and at www.facebook.com/Jaymartinforchiefjustice.

Martin, a lawyer for 27 years who served a term in the state House of Representatives representing Little Rock, said he’s an outsider running for the court at a time when it needs one to insure judicial independence.

“I am concerned about the divisions in our country, about our laws being used as political weapons and the Constitution and Bill of Rights being ignored. It’s time for patriots to stand up. I am doing so [for] adherence to the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary,” he said. “The next chief justice must be a leader and I am the right leader. I am committed to making the court work for all Arkansans, and to simply not defend the status quo, when changes are desperately needed.”

He said priorities as chief will be addressing the court system’s backlog of cases from the covid pandemic and insuring the courts have adequate security and technology

The chief justice must also be more than just an appellate judge, he said. The chief must also know how to be an administrator, skills he’s developed as a lawyer, small businessman, ordained Assemblies of God minister and lawmaker who served a majority leader during his tenure, said Martin, who unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for governor in 2022.

“I have run our law firm, which is a small business, for over 17 years, making payroll and helping make the day-to-day business decisions that a good chief justice must make,” he said. “I know how to bring people together, which must occur for us to work with the legislature and county officials to bring our county courthouses into the 21st Century, and to help all of our judges and circuit clerks have the resources necessary to do their jobs.”

KAREN BAKER

Baker, 60, of Clinton, one of the high court’s longest serving justices, was first elected in 2010. Baker, who did not return emails requesting comment, was re-elected to her third term in 2022 after fending off a challenge from Sebastian County Circuit Judge Gunner DeLay with 64 percent of the vote.

A campaign website for Baker could not be found while her Facebook page, www.facebook.com/baker4arkansas, has not been updated since she was sworn into office for her third time.

CORRECTION: Arkansas Supreme Court decisions are written by justices chosen through random selection by computer from among the majority. An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the process.