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Press Release

Opaque National Group Dominates Arkansas Supreme Court Election

Tomorrow, May 22, Arkansas will vote in a nonpartisan election to decide whether Justice Courtney Goodson will keep her seat on the state’s Supreme Court.

May 21, 2018

Tomor­row, May 22, Arkan­sas will vote in a nonpar­tisan elec­tion to decide whether Justice Court­ney Good­son will keep her seat on the state’s Supreme Court. The candid­ates them­selves have raised only small sums — and spent noth­ing on tele­vi­sion ads — but nontrans­par­ent outside groups have spent an estim­ated $1.3 million on TV ads alone.

The Bren­nan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law is track­ing tele­vi­sion ad spend­ing in the race, using data provided by Kantor Media/CMAG as of May 21.

The group spend­ing the most money so far, the Wash­ing­ton, D.C.-based Judi­cial Crisis Network (JCN), has a history, both nation­ally and in Arkan­sas, of spend­ing huge sums to influ­ence judi­cial elec­tions and federal judi­cial nomin­a­tions:  

  • JCN in Arkan­sas: This cycle, Judi­cial Crisis Network has spent more than $850,000 on ads attack­ing Court­ney Good­son and another candid­ate, Kenneth Hixson. This is not the dark money group’s first foray into Arkansas’ judi­cial polit­ics — in 2016 they spent $554,000 on similar attacks ads to defeat Justice Good­son in her campaign to be Arkansas’ Chief Justice.
     
  • JCN and federal courts: The group spent $10 million to support the nomin­a­tion of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, after spend­ing $7 million to block Merrick Garland, Pres. Obama’s choice for the same seat. The group is now spend­ing millions on ads to push forward Pres. Trump’s lower court nomin­ees. News broke this week that JCN may also be connec­ted to a shad­owy $1 million dona­tion to the Trump inaug­ural commit­tee.
     
  • Good­son success­fully sued TV stations running JCN’s ads for defam­a­tion: Accord­ing to the Arkan­sas Judi­cial Campaign Conduct and Educa­tion Commit­tee, a nonprofit foun­ded by former judges in 2016 to educate voters about judi­cial candid­ates, JCN’s attack ads falsely accuse Good­son of request­ing a pay raise and hear­ing cases involving major campaign contrib­ut­ors. Good­son sued to block TV stations from airing the ads, and one judge gran­ted her request, while another said the ads could continue to air. This litig­a­tion is ongo­ing.  
     
  • Litig­a­tion could prompt judi­cial ethics ques­tions for judges who benefited from JCN support: Depend­ing on how far litig­a­tion over the ads goes, the sitting Arkan­sas Chief Justice who benefited from JCN’s spend­ing in his own elec­tion, and possibly even Justice Gorsuch, may have to address whether they can fairly hear the case. Recusal rules gener­ally do not address the six- and seven-figure inde­pend­ent expendit­ure campaigns support­ing some judges’ elec­tions and appoint­ments.

“Across the coun­try, groups with no connec­tion to states are increas­ingly drown­ing out the voices of even the candid­ates them­selves, and refus­ing to tell the public where their money comes from,” said Douglas Keith, Coun­sel at the Bren­nan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. “Eight­een years ago, Arkan­sas voters made their judi­cial elec­tions nonpar­tisan to insu­late them from polit­ics, not to pave the way for national dark money groups and mislead­ing attack ads.”

Running against Good­son are attor­ney David Ster­ling and Arkan­sas Court of Appeals Judge Kenneth Hixson. If no candid­ate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two candid­ates will advance to a runoff elec­tion in Novem­ber.

Detailed ad data for indi­vidual candid­ates and groups, includ­ing spend­ing estim­ates, ads, and story­boards provided by Kantar Media/CMAG, are avail­able on the Bren­nan Center’s Buying Time: Arkan­sas 2018 webpage.

For national trends, read Who Pays for Judi­cial Races?, the latest in the Bren­nan Center and National Insti­tute on Money in State Polit­ics’ Polit­ics of Judi­cial Elec­tions series.

For more inform­a­tion or to speak with an expert, contact Naren Daniel at (646) 292–8381 or naren.daniel@nyu.edu.

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