OPINION: Nonpartisan races for Supreme Court important on March 5

Voters headed to the polls for the March 5 primaries should be acutely aware of the importance this is to the election cycle, especially to the different races involving Arkansas State Supreme Court races and other local judgeship contests.

The state of Arkansas elects all judges at the local, district, state, state appeals court levels and even the seven members of the Arkansas State Supreme Court.

This election cycle, with a retiring Chief Justice of the Arkansas State Supreme Court (the Hon. Dan Kemp), there is a mad three-way scramble among three of the sitting justices to replace him.

There are seven of the justices on the Arkansas Supreme Court, each elected to eight-year terms.

These state supreme court judgeships compete in nonpartisan primaries (occurring at the same time as the partisan primary elections for other non-judicial offices). In these judicial races, the candidate who receives more than 50% of the vote wins the seat. If no candidate garners a majority of the votes cast, the top two candidates compete in a runoff during the general election in November.

To serve on this court, a justice must be at least 30 years old; of good moral character; learned in the law; a U.S. citizen and state resident for at least two years; and a legal practitioner for at least eight years. Arkansas does not use judicial nominating commissions to screen or select potential candidates or justices.

As voters head to the polls March 5 three of the elected judges to the State Supreme Court are vying for the Chief Justice spot. The Chief Justice position often sets the court calendar, manages the staff and offices of the court and other administrative duties.

Those justices in the scrum are: Justice Karen R. Baker, elected to the court in 2010; Rhonda Wood, elected to the court in 2014; Barbara Womack Webb, elected in 2020 and a first-time candidate for the State Supreme Court, Jay Martin.

With the death of former State Supreme Court Justice Robin Wynne last year, a race for his position on the court's Position 2 has a strange twist.

Justice Courtney Hudson is running for this different position on the ballot. She has two years remaining on her current term, and given the mandatory retirement requirements will, in this new slot, be able to extend her possibly staying the court. In this election cycle, she also avoids standing for election during a year when Arkansas's constitutional officers and a United States Senate race will be taking place. Justice Hudson is in a race against retiring District Judge Carlton D. Jones of Texarkana.

Also on the March 5 ballot but unopposed for re-election is State Supreme Court Justice Shawn Woman of Mountain Home. This is Justice Womack's first re-election campaign for the court.

The only two justices not on the March 5 ballot are Chief Justice Dan Kemp (who is retiring) and first-time appointee State Supreme Court Justice Cody Hiland, who cannot stand for re-election in the slot he was appointed to fill the term of the late Justice Wynne. It is Wynne's full-eight-year term that Justice Hudson and Jones are seeking.

There is speculation that Hiland, a favorite of Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, will be again reappointed to fill the unexpired term of Justice Hudson, if she wins the seat formerly held by the late Justice Wynne. This will allow Hiland to fill the court seat for two additional years until the 2026 election cycle.

Supreme court justices take the oath of office Jan. 1, after they are elected.

In Washington County, voters will be asked to decide on one contested, local judicial seat for District 2, Division 2 between Taylor Samples and Mark N. Scalise. This will be Samples' first race for a district judgeship. Scalise has run twice before without being elected.

Running unopposed for state district judgeship are Judge Graham Nations, Judge Clinton (Casey) Jones, and Judge Terra Stephenson.

There are no races for the circuit judges in the Washington-Madison County District. Prosecuting Attorney Matt Durrett is running unopposed for the retiring Circuit Judge Mark Lindsey, who will leave office Dec. 31.

In Durrett taking the oath as a judge an interim prosecuting attorney will be appointed for Washington and Madison Counties to replace Durrett.

In Benton County there is a Prosecuting Attorney race between Sarah Phillips and Bryan Sexton. The office is vacant due to the recent resignation of Nathan Smith. The appointed replacement for the office who have served the last several months is ineligible to run. The new prosecuting attorney will take office Jan. 1.

There is a district judge's race for a small portion along the Benton/Washington County line featuring Samples and Scalise. That is a judgeship for Washington County.

There are no circuit judge races or district judgeship races in Benton County this election cycle.

Maylon Rice is a former journalist who worked for several northwest Arkansas publications. He can be reached via email at [email protected]. Opinions expressed are those of the author.