Appeal uncertain in federal case challenging Arkansas appellate court elections

By: - July 27, 2023 4:42 pm
U.S. District Court building, Little Rock

The Richard Sheppard Arnold United States Courthouse in Little Rock.

The plaintiffs who saw a federal judge this week reject their challenge to Arkansas’ system of electing judges to the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals haven’t decided whether to appeal.

U.S. District Judge James M. Moody Jr. on Tuesday ruled in favor of the State of Arkansas in a 44-page ruling that denied claims the state’s judicial elections don’t properly consider Black voters. 

The case had been one that legal onlookers from around the country thought could benefit from a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that centered on Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits the denial of the right to vote based on race. 

However, Moody cited that Alabama redistricting case, Allen v. Mulligan, at several points in his opinion.

Plaintiffs hope SCOTUS decision in Alabama case bodes well for Arkansas redistricting lawsuits

“We are disappointed by this decision, as it is shameful Black voters in Arkansas will continue to be denied an equal opportunity to elect judges of their choice to the state Supreme Court and Court of Appeals,” said Victoria Wenger, an attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which represented plaintiffs in the suit. 

“While we are weighing our options on how best to move forward, rest assured we and our clients will not stop advocating for Black political power in the state.”

The lawsuit challenged Arkansas’ process for electing judges to the state Court of Appeals and Supreme Court, arguing the system dilutes the influence of Black voters in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. 

State Supreme Court justices are elected in statewide voting. The 12-member Court of Appeals is broken down into seven geographic districts, five of which are represented by two judges. 

Arkansas has never elected a Black Supreme Court justice.


The plaintiffs included the Christian Ministerial Alliance, Arkansas Community Institute, retired Circuit Judge Marion Humphrey and Kymara Seals, a Black voter and policy director at the Arkansas Public Policy Panel.

“The methods for electing the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals employ practices and procedures, such as at-large and multimember districts, majority-vote requirements, numbered places, and staggered terms, that enhance the opportunity for racial discrimination because Black-preferred candidates, even with cohesive Black voter support, cannot win a majority of the total vote without white crossover voting, which does not occur at meaningful levels in Arkansas elections,” the complaint reads.

The plaintiffs asked Moody to declare that Arkansas’ appellate court elections violate the Voting Rights Act and to require the state to adopt methods for electing Court of Appeals and Supreme Court judges. 

Alternatively, the complaint suggested Moody could order the implementation of his own solution.

In the end, Moody rejected the plaintiffs’ requests. 

He ruled that they failed to show Black voters’ collective wish is not honored in Arkansas appellate court elections. He noted that Black voters’ preferred candidates have been successful in a majority of appellate judicial elections over the last two decades.

“A majority of the judges and justices currently serving on Arkansas’s appellate courts were preferred by Black voters when they were elected to their current position — even excluding the Court of Appeals’ District 7, where Black voters make up a majority of the electorate…” Moody wrote.

“If Section 2 [of the Voting Rights Act] conferred on minorities the right to elect their ideal candidates, it would not grant minority voters merely equal opportunity, but a right that no one in the political system enjoys.”



The decision in the case was long in the making. The lawsuit was filed in 2019, and the trial was held in April 2022. 

In a statement, Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin praised the decision, which he said followed a “full-blown trial on the merits.”

“As the district court concluded, there was not one scrap of evidence that our court system makes it more difficult for black voters to elect judges of their choice,” Griffin said in a statement. “It should be noted that this is yet another defeat to those who have argued the false notion that our state engages in race-based political districting. That wasn’t the case when the court of appeals was last reapportioned in 2003, when Arkansas’s political landscape was largely controlled by the Democratic Party, and it’s not the case today under Republican-led government.”


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.

Hunter Field
Hunter Field

Hunter Field is a veteran Arkansas journalist whose reporting on the state has carried him from military air strips in northwest Arkansas to soybean fields in the Arkansas delta. Most recently, he was the Democrat-Gazette's projects editor, leading the newspaper's investigative team. A Memphis native, he enjoys smoking barbecue, kayaking and fishing in his free time.