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Analysis: Outside groups may factor in Arkansas court race

By The Associated Press
This article was published January 27, 2018 at 2:43 p.m.

LITTLE ROCK (AP) — Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Courtney Goodson lost her bid to run the state's highest court two years ago after coming under fire from conservative groups that spent big on mailers and TV ads targeting her. Two years earlier, David Sterling was defeated in the race for the Republican attorney general nomination despite outside groups going after his rival in that race.

Now, the two are about to face off in what could wind up being another costly and heated fight for a state high court seat that could overshadow other races on the ballot this year. It could also turn into a proxy fight over the state's resumption of executions and the court's role in scaling back what had been an unprecedented plan to put eight men to death over an 11-day period.

Goodson quietly launched her campaign last week, with an adviser confirming that she planned to seek another term on the state's high court in the May judicial election. The same day, Sterling said he planned to challenge the incumbent jurist.

Neither candidate has laid out campaign arguments, but the past two election cycles offer some guide of what to expect. Goodson launched her bid for the chief justice seat ago vowing to represent "conservative values" on the court.

"The Supreme Court is supposed to represent your common sense, conservative values, to uphold the rule of law and to look out for your rights," Goodson said in a campaign video she posted in the fall of 2015.

A year earlier, Sterling was touting his conservative credentials in his campaign for attorney general and promised to use the office to protect Arkansans from "an overreaching federal government." Sterling lost in the runoff for the Republican nomination against Leslie Rutledge, who is now seeking re-election as the state's top attorney.

Outside groups played a major role in both races, and could do so again. Goodson lost after a race in which conservative groups blanketed the state with mailers and ads that portrayed her as too close to trial lawyers and criticized her for the court's ruling in 2014 striking down Arkansas' voter ID law. The groups and candidates for that seat and another high court seat spent more than $1.3 million on TV advertising.

Sterling lost despite the assistance of outside groups that praised Sterling on gun rights and tried to portray Rutledge as aligned with national Democratic figures on the issue.

Rutledge won after denouncing the ads and said at the time her victory showed that Arkansas wasn't for sale. The same message didn't work as well for Goodson, who lost the race for chief justice after accusing the groups of trying to buy a seat on the state's highest court.

The Republican State Leadership Committee, one of the groups that targeted Goodson, has said it's too soon to say whether it'll get involved in this year's high court race. The Judicial Crisis Network, which also targeted her, criticized the incumbent justice as a "liberal judicial activist" but didn't say whether it would get involved in her re-election bid.

The group had also targeted Rutledge in the AG's runoff, but praised the Republican in 2016 and said it didn't expect to get involved in her re-election campaign.

The Supreme Court race could be the latest test over just how much sway the groups have. It could also be a new battlefront over the death penalty in the state. Goodson was part of the court majority that halted four of the executions Arkansas scheduled last year, including three that had been part of an unprecedented plan to put eight men to death before a lethal injection drug expired. Arkansas ultimately executed four inmates.

The stays, and the conservative backlash they prompted, could offer a new line of attack for outside groups. They could use the issue to try and boost Sterling, who suggested four years ago that the state use the electric chair if it couldn't carry out executions via lethal injection.

Trying to paint Goodson as anti-death penalty could be difficult, however. The justice also wrote the majority opinion in the court's split 2016 decision upholding Arkansas' lethal injection drug secrecy law, a ruling that helped pave the way for the state to resume executions.

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