Brummett Online

OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: Coffee and ‘conversation’


A reader suggested I pop a caffeine pill and watch the video of a "conversation" last week among the candidates for chief justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court.

It was staged at the Ron Robinson Theater in downtown Little Rock under the auspices of public radio and the League of Women Voters, noble and sober servants of democracy that are to be applauded for trying.

If we're going to elect the chief justice, somebody should assemble the candidates for us to size them up from tall to short, from unimpressive to more so.

There they were--Associate Justice Karen Baker a bit halting as if nervous, Associate Justice Barbara Webb holding up a cell phone and saying courts ought to use such things, Associate Justice Rhonda Wood saying we need to make the courts more accessible even as she and the others on the Supreme Court are steadily delegating more of their work to the state Court of Appeals, and private attorney Jay Martin of Little Rock saying there are 75 counties but 85 county seats and that he was getting to all of them, both counties and seats.

I didn't need a caffeine pill. I chose to watch the video around 8 a.m. halfway into my second cup of strong black coffee, which sufficed.

The format provided that the candidates answer questions they had been given the day before. Still, they somehow seemed unprepared.

It went kind of like this: What will be your priorities if elected chief justice? Oh, my goodness. That's a tough one.

There also was a period for audience questions sent up on cards to the moderator. There were two more such queries submitted than I expected. There were two.

The event produced for these purposes an observation, a rant, a plaudit and a guffaw, and that's good for column purposes if not democracy or justice ones.

The observation is that the four candidates varyingly portrayed the chief justice's job as a small-bore responsibility--an administrator concerning himself or herself with online services and security stations at rural courthouses, more as if chief justice was secretary of state getting the grass cut and the marble wiped than a governor addressing policy.

And it's that all four of them seem well-suited for a small job.

It's not that housekeeping, lawn mowing, and digital technology geeks aren't important. It's that you don't need a statewide election for those. You need a post on Facebook asking if anybody knows a good "techie" or cleaning service that does windows.

If there is to be any value to electing the chief justice, it would arise only if the job championed an independent judiciary by rhetoric and example.

So, first, the rant: It has to do with Martin making a little something of the fact that he is the only candidate not already a justice on the court and suggesting, as you would expect, that he would bring a needed freshness or new perspective, and with Baker replying, "Sorry, Mr. Martin, please don't send me another novice to train."

Send her? As if a new justice belonged to her rather than the people?

Baker explained that there's an esoteric system in taking in these appeals and having conferences and assigning the opinions for writing and passing the drafts around for review and learning to deal with a colleague who doesn't like this phrase or that.

Baker was saying that Supreme Court justice is not a job for a lawyer who has merely practiced law, representing clients, filing briefs, making original arguments and persuading jurors. You need instead, she was saying, to have experience in being passive and in hiring good clerks to do your research and first drafts for you.

Because the format did not allow the candidates to talk to each other in this "conversation," Martin never got a chance to respond. So I called and gave him one. He replied by citing 27 years of lawyering in 58 areas of law and said it did seem sometimes that "the beautiful Justice Building is for judges instead of the people."

He also took the opportunity to say he'd expand the small-bore description of the chief justice's job in somewhat the way that, as a former majority leader in the state House of Representatives, he led the caucus in presenting its first-ever legislative package.

The plaudit? Asked about essential traits of a chief justice, Baker rambled her way to important truth to say a judge can't be partisan. She said she hadn't attended a partisan event and didn't intend to.

Appropriately, Webb, long the first lady of the state Republican Party, was next in line to answer. She said something unmemorable and nothing about the reception a woman threw for her a couple of weeks ago in Paragould with invitations that blatantly extolled Webb as the real Republican justice in the field. I called on Webb to disavow the event or pull out of attending, but she may not have had the chance to open her iPad that day.

The guffaw came when the moderator said it's now time for closing statements and Baker showed her first excitement of the evening, and reflected mine as well, saying "that's good."

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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