LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — An Arkansas Supreme Court justice seeking re-election sued Thursday to block a Washington-based conservative group’s attack ads and mailers, months after a state judge ordered several television stations to stop airing ads from another outside group targeting the justice.
Justice Courtney Goodson asked a Pulaski County judge to order the Republican State Leadership Committee’s Judicial Fairness Initiative to halt its ads and mailers against her. Goodson is running against David Sterling, an attorney for the state Department of Human Services, in next month’s election. The Republican State Leadership Committee says it’s spent $1.1 million so far this fall on the high court race.
“Without hyperbole and with the evidence supported by this complaint, all must be concerned about the future for judicial independence and the public’s confidence in its integrity if this complaint is denied,” Goodson’s lawsuit said.
A 15-second ad launched by the group this week and a mailer it sent out cite a $50,000 trip to Italy Goodson received in 2012 from W.H. Taylor, an attorney and friend of her husband’s. Goodson has recused herself from any cases involving her husband, Taylor or Tyson Foods Inc., a company Taylor has represented.
A spokesman for the group accused Goodson of “shamefully using an Arkansas court to silence any criticism against her.” The group spent nearly $745,000 in the spring ahead of the May 22 judicial election between Goodson, Sterling and state Appeals Judge Kenneth Hixson. Next month’s election is a runoff between Goodson and Sterling.
“Truth is an absolute defense, and Courtney Goodson can’t change her record of taking a $50,000 trip to Italy on a donor’s yacht, and hundreds of thousands in contributions from law firms who go before her court,” RSLC spokesman David James said.
James also accused Goodson of violating a judicial ethics rule prohibiting use of court facilities for campaigns by filming an ad in the state Supreme Court chamber. Goodson has defended the filming and said the chamber is open to the general public.
A state judge in May ordered several Arkansas television stations to temporarily stop running an ad by another group, the Judicial Crisis Network, that also criticized Goodson over donors’ gifts. That ad and an RSLC mailer also criticize Goodson over a pay raise the court received last year. Goodson’s lawsuits over that ad were against the television airing them, not Judicial Crisis. Her latest lawsuit is against RSLC, not media outlets airing the group’s ad.
The ruling blocking the Judicial Crisis ad was criticized by First Amendment advocates as an unconstitutional restriction on free speech. One of the TV stations has appealed the judge’s order, which prevented the ads running through the state’s May 22 judicial election.
Goodson lost her bid for chief justice two years ago after facing similar attacks, and she’s portrayed her re-election bid as a referendum on outside groups getting involved in judicial races. Arkansas is one of several states where high court races have become more partisan and negative, with groups spending heavily to reshape courts.
RSLC has also been airing 15-second and 30-second television ads in support of Sterling.
Judicial Crisis Network, which doesn’t disclose its donors, hasn’t run ads in the race since the spring. RSLC, which launched its initiative focused on state court races in 2014, has been supported in the past financially by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, tobacco company Reynolds America, Bentonville-based Wal-Mart Stores and other major corporations.