Brummett Online

OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: Judging the judge candidates

This is the season for people to show up on your front porch asking you to vote for them for a local judgeship.

The apparent premise is that you can size them up for a judge job while you stand there holding the door only slightly ajar as you bend to restrain your beagle lest she burst out toward Markham Street. Your dog, not the candidate.

These porch visits have been uncommonly eventful this season.

Weeks ago, on what I recall was a Sunday, a man and woman came to the door. He identified himself as the spouse of a district-judge candidate for Pulaski and Perry counties, Jill Kamps. The woman identified herself as a friend of the candidate. The woman, in jeans and a ball cap with hair packed under it, seemed a little chatty in a tone that suggested familiarity or friendship. I said I recognized the name of the candidate because there was a big sign for her at the nearby high-profile restaurant owned and operated by a good friend. So, I said, chances are I'll vote for her.

You might think that's irresponsible, basing a vote on such superficiality. But that's what the code of judicial conduct demands. Judge candidates are not to talk about issues, or about how they would rule in this case or that.

We're supposed to consider them like candidates for senior-class president and only hope they have a little legal knowledge to go with their general nice-seemingness. But the U.S. Supreme Court members get nominated by the president, and George H.W. Bush was a serious president, and yet he put Clarence Thomas on the court. And that's no better.

There's no perfect way. There's not even any good way.

Shalah asked who had been at the door. I began to explain that it was the husband of one of those judge candidates along with a nice, chatty woman--not the candidate--who ... and then it hit me. I focused on what I recalled of the woman's cap-topped face. I realized she he was chatty because she was a friend of mine, one of recent vintage, yes, but one who had felt comfortable a year ago leaning on me to write a column about a coming public event, one I found worthy, and who brought me a jar of honey to thank me for obliging with the column.

I ran past two entire houses to yell at her that I remembered her now and knew she was a good friend. I'm sure she was charmed.

It turns out Jill Kamps is a 20-year prosecutor and, for the last six years, supervisor of the division for criminal prosecution. We need judges trained in practicing before judges. I'd vote for her even without a personal porch connection.

The other candidate is Mackie Pierce, a veteran and fine local judge. But this seems an occasion for generational change. I'm for that except in columnists.

Then, just the other day, I answered a midday knock and cracked the door to say, oh, good, another judge candidate. I reached for the collar of the beagle, who was already snout-out onto the porch. She's sneaky and high-strung.

The beagle, not the judge candidate.

I listened as attentively as I could through the door crack while holding a writhing muscular beagle. I may have cut the woman short by saying thank you, and I'll study these materials and give you full consideration.

I shut the door, looked over the materials, and realized this was the woman, Beth Burgess, whom a woman in my LifeQuest class had touted to me voluntarily a few days before, saying she was seeking a Pulaski County district-court judgeship covering sobriety and veterans' health issues and was experienced in, and deeply committed to, juvenile and family law and in finding the best approaches to trying to solve those issues.

Her material also said she was with the Branscum Law Firm, and I wondered if that meant Herby Branscum.

I opened the door to see if maybe she was still close enough to be shouted at. It turned out she was coming back up the steps. She said she had turned back to leave me a note providing me with her website, so that I could take a closer look. I told her I was coming for her, to tell her that a woman I trust had extolled her to me just the other day and to ask if she had worked with or for my old friend Herby Branscum. She said that Herby was her dad.

If she can do judging in a courtroom even remotely as commandingly and effortlessly as Herby performed as chairman of the state Claims Commission back in my cub-reporting days 40 years ago at the state Capitol, then she gets my vote.

But she has a solid veteran judge as an opponent as well, in Morgan "Chip" Welch. Isn't it interesting that Pulaski and Perry counties can produce an abundance of good candidates for judge and the national political parties can't produce one each for the presidency?

I'm getting a few requests lately from people asking me to help them cast informed votes for these judgeships. One woman said the late, great liberal lion Brownie Ledbetter once made those recommendations for her, and she wished I'd take over the responsibility.

But I can't stand in for Brownie Ledbetter, a true and noble liberal, being the mushy moderate that I am.

I could at this point confidently promote Molly McNulty for the state Court of Appeals, considering that I know her, and her parents, and the Court of Appeals judge for whom she's clerked reliably, and that my wife knows her from shared historic preservation interests.

And I wrote Sunday that I will vote for Carlton Jones for the state Supreme Court.

As for chief justice of that Supreme Court, the choice is between three current associate justices on the high court--all running for chief with the insurance of being able to stay in their associate justiceships if losing--and a fourth candidate. I'm for the fourth candidate based on his advantage that I don't know him.

As I said, judgeship selection is imperfect.

Generally, though, I have a rule of thumb: Vote only for the candidates you know well enough that, owing to their ethics, they'd disqualify themselves if you ever wound up before them.

John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at [email protected]. Read his @johnbrummett feed on X, formerly Twitter.

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