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Why Are Arkansas Judges Elected?

by Curtis Lanning

(NWA Politics) — Arkansas is one of 15 states where judges are selected via non-partisan election, but half of the country appoints their judges. Why doesn’t Arkansas?

To answer that question and more, we turned to the Arkansas Secretary of State’s office.

Why Are Arkansas Judges Elected?

The simple answer to the above question is the election process for state judges is set by the Arkansas Constitution.

Chris Powell, spokesman for the secretary of state’s office, said Arkansas has been electing judges in some capacity for as long as it has been a state. Though, he noted, in the 1836 Arkansas Constitution, the Legislature was instructed to choose judges for the supreme court and circuit courts. Now, Arkansans vote on those judges.

Even though Arkansas judges run for election, they don’t choose affiliation with a political party when they do so.

Term Lengths and Limits

Judges serve different terms, depending on what court they preside over. Arkansas Supreme Court justices and judges that sit on the court of appeals both serve eight-year terms, according to Powell. Circuit court judges serve six-year terms, and district court judges serve four-year terms.

The judicial general election is held at the same time as the primary election, which was on May 22 this year. Runoffs will be decided during the general election on November 6, Powell said.

Powell said Arkansas has no term limits for judges. Though with the exception of a couple circumstances outlined under state law 24-8-215, judges must retire by age 70, or they lose retirement benefits.

Judicial Districts

Like state legislative districts, various courts are also divided up by district. However, those districts are drawn by a different process, Powell said.

Under Arkansas Law 16-10-501, the Arkansas Judicial Council sets criteria for redrawing circuit court districts. And if the Legislature wants to make changes, a bill must be referred to the Senate or House Judicial Committee (depending on where the legislation originates from).

Before the committee can take action on that bill, it must include a letter from the Arkansas Judicial Councilcertifying the legislation meets criteria the council has set. A bill may be withdrawn from the Senate or House Judicial Committee and acted upon without that certified letter only if the Joint Rules of the House and Senate are suspended.

Criteria for redistricting district courts is set by the District Court Resource Assessment Board. The board makes recommendations to the Legislature during each regulation session, under Arkansas Law 16-17-1003.

For more about the differences between circuit and district courts, click here and here.

The Future

As for whether the state will stop electing judges and move to a different system, Powell said there has been some talk of allowing the governor to nominate justices to the Arkansas Supreme Court (like the president does with the Supreme Court of the United States).

Powell added, “We will have to see if that goes anywhere, but for the most part, I think Arkansans like having a direct say in who is in office.”

(This article was originally featured on NWA Politics.)

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