Arkansas GOP chair Cody Hiland appointed to state Supreme Court

Governor says the former federal prosecutor brings ‘strict originalism’ to bench

By: - July 3, 2023 2:12 pm

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders (second from right) announces that she has appointed former U.S. Attorney Cody Hiland (second from left) as the Arkansas Supreme Court’s newest associate justice on Monday, July 3, 2023, with Hiland’s wife, Jana (left), and First Gentleman Bryan Sanders (right) observing. (Tess Vrbin/Arkansas Advocate)

This story was updated at 4:49 p.m. on Monday, July 3, 2023.

Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders appointed former U.S. Attorney Cody Hiland to the state Supreme Court on Monday, filling the seat left vacant by Associate Justice Robin Wynne’s death in June.

Hiland, 51, has been the chair of the state’s Republican Party since December 2022. He is a former state prosecuting attorney, adviser on law enforcement for Sanders’ 2022 gubernatorial campaign and aide to Sanders’ father, Mike Huckabee, who was governor from 1996 to 2007.

In a press conference held in the historic old Supreme Court chamber in the Capitol, Sanders praised Hiland for his “lifetime of legal experience” and “commitment to law and order.”

“It will be impossible to fill Justice Wynne’s shoes on the Supreme Court, but Cody’s decades of experience, even temperament and love for our state and the rule of law bring him closer than anyone else could,” Sanders said. “He will be there to call balls and strikes, interpreting state law as it was written and leaving the legislating to the Legislature.”

Hiland was sworn in as associate justice immediately after the press conference in the governor’s conference room.

Hiland will serve on the court until Jan. 1, 2025. The state’s next judicial election will be in May 2024 and will include a special election to fill the rest of Wynne’s eight-year term, which began in January of this year. Hiland’s appointment means he is ineligible to run for the seat, according to the Arkansas Constitution, though other justices’ seats will be up for election.

Arkansas Supreme Court Associate Justice Robin Wynne dies at 70

Wynne won a second term on the Supreme Court in November 2022 after a runoff election, and he was known for his moderate stances on a court that leans conservative. He died June 21 at the age of 70.

Hiland will bring “strict originalism” to the court, Sanders said at the press conference.

“This is the first time the Arkansas Supreme Court will have a conservative majority, and I know it will have the same effect on our state as it has had on our country,” she said, in a reference to the U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative majority.

Hiland said he was “humbled by the opportunity and sobered by the responsibility” of his new role.

“My prayer is that at the end of this term, people will say that I brought honor to the title of Associate Supreme Court Justice,” he said.

Hiland served as prosecuting attorney for the state’s 20th judicial district in Faulkner, Van Buren and Searcy counties from 2011 to 2017 after being elected twice. He ran unsuccessfully for the Arkansas Court of Appeals in 2016.

Then-President Donald Trump appointed Hiland as U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas in October 2017. The U.S. Senate unanimously confirmed Hiland to the position.

The Eastern District of Arkansas, which includes Little Rock, saw an 82% increase in criminal cases under Hiland’s leadership, Sanders said.

Hiland stepped down as federal prosecutor on Dec. 31, 2020, and became chief legal counsel for the Arkansas Department of Public Safety. In 2021, he considered running for the Republican nomination for Arkansas Attorney General but never entered the race.

He left DPS in 2022 to join Sanders’ campaign for governor, seeking support from law enforcement statewide. Earlier this year, he helped her office draft the Protect Arkansas Act, the legislation that restructured Arkansas’ criminal sentencing and parole system, Sanders said Monday.

Hiland’s appointment drew praise from numerous state legislators as well as members of the state’s congressional delegation.

The state Democratic Party in a statement criticized Sanders for “abusing her power to appoint judges.”

In the statement, party chair Grant Tennille said Hiland “hasn’t served a single term as an appellate judge, a gap in his resume that any other governor would consider disqualifying. But this is just another day under Republican supermajority rule in Arkansas.”

Sanders justified fears that “our courts are becoming too partisan,” Tennille said.

“In our state, judges are nonpartisan, but Governor Sanders learned how to govern in Washington, not Arkansas. Our people deserve better,” he said.

Later on Monday, Sanders endorsed Joseph Wood to succeed Hiland as chair of the Arkansas Republican Party. Wood is a former Washington County Judge and has been Secretary of the Department of Transformation and Shared Services since Sanders appointed him in January.

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Tess Vrbin
Tess Vrbin

Tess Vrbin came to the Advocate from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, where she reported on low-income housing and tenants' rights, and won awards for her coverage of 2021 flooding and tornado damage in rural Arkansas. She previously covered local government for The Commercial Dispatch in Mississippi and state government for the Columbia Daily Tribune in Missouri.

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