Nonpartisan state Supreme Court race features candidate heavily favored by Republicans

Faulkner County circuit judge challenges incumbent associate justice

By: - November 1, 2022 12:45 am
Arkansas Supreme Court Associate Justice Robin Wynne (left) and Faulkner County Circuit Judge Chris Carnahan face off in a nonpartisan runoff election Nov. 8. (Photos courtesdy of Arkansas Secretary of State's website)

Arkansas Supreme Court Associate Justice Robin Wynne (left) and Faulkner County Circuit Judge Chris Carnahan face off in a nonpartisan runoff election Nov. 8. (Photos courtesy of Arkansas Secretary of State’s website)

The Nov. 8 runoff for Arkansas Supreme Court Position 2 between Associate Justice Robin Wynne and Faulkner County Circuit Judge Chris Carnahan is billed as nonpartisan.

Candidates aren’t nominated by political parties and can’t claim party endorsements or seek party contributions, according to the Arkansas Judicial Code of Conduct.

But there’s a seeming loophole: Candidates aren’t specifically banned from accepting money from political parties.

Carnahan’s campaign not only accepts money from political groups – $78,600 so far – the candidate said he views the contributions as an endorsement.

“Obviously, I think it is an endorsement,” Carnahan said in an interview Monday.

The part of the judicial code that prohibits candidates from claiming party endorsements  “violates the rights of those groups and myself as a candidate,” he said.

“It’s unconstitutional. They know it’s unconstitutional.”

If someone wants to challenge the donations, he continued, “everyone knows it will be a losing project.”

Partisan contributors

As of Monday, Carnahan’s campaign reported receiving 39% of total contributions from Republican Party state and local committees, according to campaign finance disclosure information filed with the Arkansas Secretary of State through October.

Among the largest partisan contributors to Carnahan: Republican Party of Arkansas, Independence County Republican Party and Faulkner County Republican Women, $5,800 each; Cleburne County Republican Women’s Club, $3,900; Cleburne County Republican Committee and Garland County Republican Party, $3,400; Republican committees in Clay, Cross, Saline, Washington and White counties, $2,900 each.

Carnahan, a Conway resident, is a former executive director of the Arkansas Republican Party

Wynne, whom Carnahan is trying to unseat, reports no contributions from any political party.

Wynne, who is from Little Rock, has a big fundraising edge from another source.

He reports $71,605, or two-thirds of his total contributions, from lawyers and law firms.

For Carnahan, it’s 5.6%, or $11,306.

Wynne political consultant Linda Napper said Wynne’s campaign is “following the rules for nonpartisan candidates.”

“We choose to stay with the nonpartisan guidelines and follow what we think is proper behavior for a judicial campaign.”

She declined to comment on the Republican contributions to Carnahan’s campaign, saying, “We do not comment on an opponent’s campaign. We are busy focusing on our campaign.”

‘Trust and trust only’

Arkansas candidates for judgeships run in nonpartisan races.

“The aspiration is that the judiciary is the example for all of us, ruling without prior knowledge of the facts of the case or with a bias or prejudice for one side in a political disagreement,” said David Sachar, executive director of the Arkansas Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission (JDDC).

“In cases with constitutional issues, ballot issues or election issues under appeal, where there is a political side to the issue, it’s best to have justices not closely tied to the political mechanisms,” he said.

“The judiciary runs on trust and trust only,” Sachar said.

The Arkansas Judicial Code of Conduct prohibits candidates for judgeships from most support from political organizations. 

Candidates for the judiciary can’t solicit funds from political groups. Nor can they seek, accept or use nominations or endorsements from a partisan political group or a partisan elected official.

Carnahan said he believes that if candidates for judgeships can’t accept contributions “and still be fair in their decisions, they have no business on the bench.”

He said that as far as he knows, no one with his campaign has sought funds from any donors, including political groups.

Sachar said the judicial discipline commission “will consider any complaint filed concerning alleged violations of the ‘endorsement’ clause in the Code.”

“No one at the JDDC has determined that any part of Canon 4 [addressing judicial candidates’ political and campaign activities] is unconstitutional,” he added.

“Judges do accept contributions to get elected,” Sachar said. “Merely accepting a contribution does not require a judge to disqualify on a matter. Judges are expected to be fair and impartial and to weigh the appearance of impropriety as they hear cases.” 

The Republican Party of Arkansas formally endorsed Carnahan for the runoff, which one party official said was a first for Republicans for a nonpartisan judicial race.

‘I hope he gets a lot of it’

Carnahan’s campaign has outraised Wynne overall, $201,743 to $110,528, according to the most recent reports through October.

After expenditures, Carnahan reports a remaining campaign contribution fund balance of $11,785; Wynne’s campaign, $898. 

Asked about Wynne’s lead in contributions from lawyers and law firms, Carnahan said doesn’t know Wynne’s contributors.

“I hope he gets a lot of it. He needs to cover up his actions,” he said. 

Carnahan went on to cite an 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in May 2020 that ordered the release of two inmates, John Brown Jr. and Tina Jimerson, who each had served 26 years of life sentences. The judges found the convictions were based on wrongful 1992 convictions in Dallas County, according to Arkansas Democrat-Gazette articles at the time.

The panel elaborated on earlier concerns by federal district judges about actions of law enforcement officers and the then-deputy prosecuting attorney, who was Wynne. The ruling said it was clear they acted in “bad faith” by withholding exculpatory evidence from defense attorneys.

Federal lawsuits filed later in 2020 on behalf of the inmates blamed 10 law enforcement officers for wrongdoing, but not Wynne. The suits alleged the officers “concealed all of their fraudulent activity by intentionally withholding from and misrepresenting [facts] to trial prosecutors…”

Wynne’s campaign declined to comment, saying “we will continue to follow the judicial canons concerning nonpartisan judicial elections.”

The campaigns for Position 2 on the Arkansas Supreme Court began as a three-person race that also included Little Rock attorney David Sterling.

Carnahan and Wynne were the two top vote-getters in the May 24 nonpartisan judicial election. Wynne had 49.5%, Carnahan 28.8%

Wynne, Position 2 associate justice since 2015, was just short of the 50% needed to avoid a runoff.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Lisa Hammersly
Lisa Hammersly

Lisa Hammersly has been a reporter and editor for more than 40 years in Arkansas and North Carolina. She has reported on issues that include political corruption, campaign finance and the national collapse of the nation’s home lending system, working for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and The Charlotte Observer.