FILE - In this Friday, May 18, 2018, file photo, Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Courtney Goodson speaks to reporters at the Pulaski County Courthouse in Little Rock, Ark. Goodson and David Sterling, the chief counsel for the Department of Human Services, advanced to a runoff in the election for the nonpartisan state Supreme Court seat, Tuesday, May 22, 2018. (AP Photo/Andrew DeMillo, File)

Bitter, expensive fight for Arkansas court seat to drag on

May 23, 2018 - 11:54 am

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — A bitter and expensive fight for an Arkansas Supreme Court seat that drew more than $1 million in outside spending and a flurry of attack ads will drag on for another six months, with an incumbent justice heading into a runoff in November against an attorney backed by an out-of-state Republican group.

Justice Courtney Goodson and David Sterling, the chief counsel for the state Department of Human Services, advanced to a runoff in the November election for the state's highest court in Tuesday's non-partisan judicial election. The two were the top candidates in a three-person race for Goodson's seat, with Appeals Court Judge Kenneth Hixson finishing third.

"I'd fully expect we're going to continue to see massive amounts of outside spending from these opaque groups," said Douglas Keith, counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, which tracks judicial campaign spending.

Goodson had faced a barrage of attack ads and mailers from the Judicial Crisis Network, a Washington group that had targeted her during her unsuccessful bid for chief justice two years ago. The group, which doesn't disclose its donors, spent more than $935,000 on TV ads bashing Goodson and Hixson, according to the Brennan Center.

"Today was a huge victory for honest people who are fed up with the lies dark money is spreading about me," Goodson told The Associated Press Tuesday night.

The ads led to a court fight over whether they should be broadcast and Goodson said she planned to continue that legal battle. Days before the primary, a state judge ordered Little Rock area TV stations to stop airing one ad, while another judge said the spot could resume running in northwest Arkansas. Goodson has filed a similar lawsuit aimed at halting the lawsuits in the Fort Smith area. Some media and free speech advocates have opposed Goodson's lawsuits, saying judges should not decide what is broadcast during elections.

The ad that sparked the court fight criticizes Goodson over gifts received from donors and a pay raise the court requested last year. An Associated Press Fact Check of the ad found that some of its claims are misleading. The Judicial Crisis Network continued its criticism of Goodson Wednesday.

"The citizens of Arkansas want and deserve integrity on the state's Supreme Court - Justice Goodson can't run from her record of pay increases, favoritism and residing in a swamp of conflicts of interest," Carrie Severino, the group's chief counsel and policy director, said in a statement.

Another group, the Republican State Leadership Committee, spent more than $564,000 on TV ads and mailers in support of Sterling. The group's ad touted Sterling, who ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination for attorney general in 2014, as a "strong conservative." The group indicated it would continue focusing on Arkansas' high court race.

"As evidenced in recent election cycles, Arkansas is an important state to the RSLC's Judicial Fairness Initative and will certainly be critical in November," RSLC President Matt Walter said in a statement.

Sterling has said he had nothing to do with the outside groups' involvement.

"I was just concentrating on keeping my positive message out there and letting the different groups that were getting involved do what they were doing, but I didn't have any involvement in that," Sterling said.

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