Longtime Arkansas judges, legal veterans vie for open Supreme Court seat
March 2-8, 2020
By Rob Moritz
The two veteran candidates running for Position 4 on the Arkansas Supreme Court agree that the most qualified and experienced should be elected to the state’s highest court.
But Pulaski County Circuit Judge Morgan “Chip” Welch and Barbara Womack Webb, who is chief law judge on the Arkansas Workers’ Compensation Commission and a former circuit judge in Saline County, disagree on what kind of qualifications and experience are necessary to take over the job now held by Justice Josephine “Jo” Hart, who is not seeking re-election.
With judicial races in Arkansas being non-partisan, Welch and Webb may not publicly identify themselves as a member of any party or make any promises inconsistent with the unbiased viewpoint that a judge might have. They also may not discuss any issues they may be later called upon to decide if elected.
So, the candidates talk about their experience, their careers, their judicial temperament, independence, and their families.
During a recent forum at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock William H. Bowen School of Law they even mentioned their pets. Webb, 62, said she has dogs named Justice and Liberty. Welch, 69, said one of his dog’s eyes is blue is named Frankie.
In an interview prior to the forum, Welch described himself as a “strict constructionist” who tries to follow what the Arkansas Constitution says.
“What we construe primarily on the Arkansas Supreme Court … is the Arkansas constitution,” he said. “I’m not running to reinterpret the written word.” He said later that U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Roberts said it best: “A judge should call balls and strikes.”
Welch is the 16th Division Court Judge for the Sixth Judicial Circuit, which serves Pulaski and Perry County. He was first elected in 2012 and reelected in 2018. He said he has been a lawyer for nearly 45 years and has handled more than 8,000 cases.
Before he was elected to the bench, he was in private practice and tried nearly 150 jury trials and thousands of hearings and bench trials.
Dark Money influence
“I think the two issues … are experience and keeping the insidious influence of politics of the court,” he said. The “insidious influence” he referred to is known as dark money, which has occurred in recent state Supreme Court elections, including the 2018 between Associate Justice Courtney Goodson and challenger David Sterling, a local attorney. In such cases, outside partisan groups that under federal law do not have to release the names of their donors, often paying millions of dollars to support certain candidates with false or misleading ads about their opponents.
“I have demonstrated I can do the work and I have demonstrated the judicial temperament necessary to treat folks with respect and give thoughtful consideration to their views,” said Welch. “And I have been in the trenches, I have tried those cases.”
Webb also described herself as strict constructions and as the only “conservative candidate” in the race. She also fully embraces the importance of nonpartisan judges.
“I have served on the bench and I have never let any politics or personal views influence any of my decisions,” she said. “I think what the people of Arkansas have always said is we want to pick our own judges. We don’t want the appointment done by a politician or a special interest group. We want the judges to be accountable to the people.”
She said U.S. Constitution, among other things, “protects our rights that have been given to us by God and protects from those people who try to encroach on this right and it also tells judges that we should stay in our lanes. We are there to interpret and not to legislate from the bench and not to execute the laws, as the executive does, from the bench and not execute “
As for concerns about dark money, Webb said she is “not aware of any … that has come into this campaign, and I wouldn’t be in a position to know or speculate.” She said she believes the U.S. Supreme Court “has addressed those issues.”
As noted, the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizen United in 2010 reversed long-time campaign spending restrictions, opening the door for corporations and other outside interest groups to create super PACs and spend unlimited funds on elections without having to reveal the names of the individual donors.
Webb, the wife of Arkansas Republican Party Chairman Doyle Webb, has served as an administrative law judge on the Arkansas Workers’ Compensation Commission for more than a decade.
She was first elected as prosecuting attorney for Grant, Hot Spring and Saline in 1997 and faced a backlog of more than 4,000 cases left by the previous prosecutor Dan Harmon, who resigned after being charged with assault. In July 1997, Harmon was convicted of racketeering, extortion and drug conspiracy in federal court and sentenced to eight years in prison.
After being twice re-elected as a prosecutor, Gov. Asa Hutchinson in 2017 appointed Webb to complete the term of Circuit Judge Bobby McCallister, who resigned as part of a federal plea agreement for not paying taxes. Her experiences in Saline County as both prosecutor and circuit judge, make her the only candidate for the high court who has fought political corruption, she said.
“I cleaned up the mess behind corrupt politicians and I restored integrity and respect to our court system, and I restored fairness to the people of my community,” said Webb. “First, I was called on and was elected three times to serve as prosecuting attorney in Saline County and cleaned up after Dan Harmon.”
Along with addressing the backlog of cases left by Harmon, she also started a drug task force, which shut down more than 500 meth labs, Webb said.
Welch said during the recent forum and during an interview with the Daily Record that Webb did not fight political corruption because both she and McCallister were charged in federal court.
“With great respect, I take issue with whether or not she prosecuted anybody who is corrupt,” Welch said. “She ran for two empty seats when others got kicked by the prosecutor in federal court.”
Webb countered that much of her time as both prosecutor and circuit judge has been working to “restore integrity” to the offices. “I’ve been trusted and appointed by both Democrats and Republicans to serve on the Arkansas Ethics Commission, to serve as an administrative law judge, and to serve as an alderman on our city council in Benton, and I was trusted and elected by Democrat and Republican voters when I was elected prosecuting attorney in Saline County,” she said.
Webb has also served on the Arkansas State Crime Lab board, the coalition for juvenile justice and the U.S. Department of Justice Anti-Terrorism Task Force. She also was appointed special associate justice on the state Supreme Court by Gov. Mike Huckabee.
Welch was appointed by Arkansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Dan Kemp to chair the state high court’s Sub-Committee on Complex Litigation in 2017, a position he continues to hold. He received the “Trial Judge of the year” award from the Arkansas Trial Lawyers Association in 2015. He was president of the Arkansas Trial Lawyers’ Association in 1990-91.
“I have demonstrated that I can do the work and I have demonstrated the judicial temperament necessary to treat folks with respect and give thoughtful consideration to the issues,” he said. “I am hopeful the voters will compare experience and my maturity and the ability to get the job done because I have done it.”