State Supreme Court candidate Carnahan touts conservatism; Wynne points to impartial approach
Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Robin Wynne says he believes in keeping a distance from partisan politics when it comes to legal races, while District Judge Chris Carnahan champions his conservative values.
Wynne of Little Rock and Carnahan of Conway will face each other for position 2 on the Arkansas Supreme Court in the Nov. 8 bipartisan runoff. Early voting begins on Monday.
Carnahan and Wynne were the front-runners in the May 24 bipartisan court election, which included Little Rock attorney David Sterling. Wynne, 53, has served as an assistant judge at Position 2 since 2015 but narrowly missed getting the 50% of the vote needed to avoid a runoff.
“I was hoping I wouldn’t go into a runoff, but any time you have a three-person race, there’s a good chance you’re not going to win it outright, even though I won about five-tenths of a percent of one won without a runoff,” Wynne said. “My campaign was really a hands-on campaign and I think we traveled a lot. Don’t think there was a group that asked me to speak to them without going am.”
Carnahan, 50, said he believes the dynamic of the race has changed now that there are only two candidates.
“The electorate is growing,” he said. “…Most people don’t know who the nominees for judgeship are, and I’ve done my best to make sure they know there’s a conservative nominee for judgeship out there, and that resonated very well with the people I met.” met and talked to them.”
While Arkansas Supreme Court nominees are running under a bipartisan label, the state’s Republican Party has made it clear that it would prefer to see Carnahan on the bench. The party officially backed him in June, a move described by a party official as a first for organizing bipartisan judicial elections.
Carnahan said he was asked to speak to the Republican Party the day the party backed him, but said he had no idea any support was coming.
“That was unexpected, and when they started voting for it, I left the room,” Carnahan said. “I don’t think I really had to be there for that. I fully support everyone’s right to support candidates and I was very happy to have their support and everyone else who wants to get involved.”
The party was involved in the state Supreme Court race before officially announcing its support of Carnahan. In April, both Carnahan and Sterling said they received donations from the Republican Party.
Arkansas Democratic Party Chairman Grant Tennille told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in a written statement that the Democratic Party does not take a position in bipartisan judicial elections.
State Assemblyman David Ray, R-Maumelle, recently created a television ad in support of Carnahan, calling Wynne a “liberal” judge who is soft on crime and ran for the Democrats.
“Although Supreme Court nominees run under a bipartisan label, Justice Wynne has made it fairly transparent that his preferred partisan label is Democrat,” Ray said in a press release announcing the television ad.
Wynne served as a Democrat for the 91st District of the Arkansas House of Representatives from 1985 to 1988. Carnahan was Executive Director of the state Republican Party from 1999 to 2001.
Wynne chose not to respond to the Republican Party’s endorsement of Carnahan and declined to respond to criticisms of him.
“What I would say to the people of Arkansas is, you decide,” he said. “If there’s a movement in the future that Supreme Court justices can have party affiliations and lawmakers want to change the rules, then so be it. Unfortunately that is not true now. I have not sought any confirmations and I do not do so. “Plan on soliciting any endorsements as I feel this creates the appearance of impropriety.”
In 2000, voters approved a constitutional amendment that switched the state to bipartisan judicial elections beginning in 2002. The move stemmed from concerns in national circles that judges’ races had become too similar to races for other public offices and threatened an independent judiciary.
However, that year the state Senate removed from the referendum draft a provision that prohibited impartial court candidates from soliciting support for, or pretending to have been supported by, a political party.
The state’s current Judicial Code of Conduct, which can be found on the website of the Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission, states: “Except as permitted by law, a nominee judge and an elected judge shall not seek endorsements from any political organization or elected official , adopt or use in partisan elections; however, nothing prevents a judge candidate from speaking to a political organization or elected official about the choice of judge candidate.”
Wynne highlighted the change as key to the way he works from the bank.
“Amendment 80 passed in 2000 and the people of Arkansas said we want our nominees for judges, we want our prosecutors to be unaffiliated at all,” he said. “We don’t want them to have any kind of philosophy tied to a political faction or anything else.
“That’s important and that’s me, regardless of what I’ve done in the past. I’ve been on the bench since 2003 as a District Judge, Circuit Court Judge and Supreme Court Justice, and to be fair, impartial and independent is what matters most to me.”
Carnahan said he hopes future Supreme Court races will be partisan.
“People are dying to know – ‘Are you this party or that party?’ — and that’s because they’re trying to figure out what the nature of your decisions and thought process would be,” he said. “I wish we could go back to partisan judicial elections.”
Carnahan said that when he was previously associated with the Republican Party, the group spent about $125,000 to support the amendment to move to bipartisan judicial elections, but in retrospect he said he felt it was the wrong move.
“I think it was a way for people who don’t think exactly like normal Arkansans to hide some more extreme views and get on the bench,” he said. “I don’t paint the entire justice system with a broad brush, but I’m sure I can think of a few.”
Wynne said the Arkansans still wanted their judges to be bipartisan.
“There’s a lot of political pressure out there, especially since we’re elected officials, but I’ve maintained my independence once again and have done so for the past 17 years,” he said.
“We know what the US Supreme Court has been doing for the last three or four months and you see the responses from a lot of people saying our US Supreme Court has gotten political,” he said. “And in Arkansas, our Supreme Court is an equal branch of government, and we must keep our distance from the legislature and the executive branch and do what is our job.”
Though they differ on the concept of partisan judicial elections, both candidates said it’s important to be impartial when deciding from the state’s highest court.
“Women and men in the justice system must be ethical. You must be willing to put aside any personal dislike of anyone or anything and make decisions based on the law,” Carnahan said. “If the judges and judges do that, based solely on the law and the facts presented to them, then our justice system works.”
Wynne said he took an oath to uphold the constitution, statutes and precedent of the court.
“Someone going to court or appealing to the Supreme Court wants the judge to apply the law. He doesn’t want it to be anything else,” he said.
Carnahan said he wants people to know he’s a conservative lawyer who will obey the law.
“I will not legislate from the bench,” he said. “Basically, I will stay on my own track. I will let the political branches handle the political controversies, but I will follow the law as passed by the General Assembly unless it violates people’s constitutional rights.”
Wynne said people need to keep their eyes wide open on our democracy now more than ever.
“Not just because of things that are happening nationally, but you and I are both proud of the liberties and liberties that we have and these are very weak and as we have seen could be taken away in almost a minute,” he said, “…This is a bigger issue than just the Supreme Court and the authority of the Supreme Court, but people need to be aware of the value of democracy, and the deadlock and hatred for each other, there is no place for that. “