There’s been some fairly outspoken campaigning in the face-off between the incumbent Division 9 circuit judge (Circuit Judge Mary McGowan) and her challenger (Cecily Skarda).
But candidates in the other five contested races for circuit and district judgeships in the county are keeping a lower profile. That’s typical. Candidates cannot comment on matters likely to come before the court, for example, nor can they publicly identify their party affiliation. If you don’t know the candidates personally or through the legal community, it’s tough to choose one over another.
So how does one decide how to vote in a judicial election? The Times interviewed the contenders to give readers a better idea of who to pull the lever for.
Pulaski County Circuit Court
Three lawyers in private practice are seeking the position currently held by Rita Gruber, who is leaving the county bench to make a run against Wendell Griffen for the state Court of Appeals. The court hears juvenile cases. Pay is $128,633 per year. Judges serve six-year terms.
Cathi Compton, 52, who comes from a criminal defense background, said she’s running because she thinks an effective juvenile court can help prevent future adult crime. Compton has served as a special justice on the Arkansas Supreme Court and chaired the first Arkansas Public Defender Commission (1993-1998). She lives on Wye Mountain.
Melinda Gilbert, 43, of Little Rock, who practices family and juvenile law, is serving a second term on the state Supreme Court’s Committee on Child Support and has served as a special judge. She said she would work toward effective management of the court, including the implementation of video teleconferencing. Gilbert has been endorsed by the North Little Rock Fraternal Order of Police.
Jewel “Cricket” Harper, 50, of Sherwood emphasized her 19 years in children’s law and said she would be the proactive judge the busy juvenile court requires. Harper has served as a special judge and was an attorney in Pulaski County Court’s juvenile division for 10 years. She also directed the Supreme Court’s ad litem program.
Little Rock District Court
Division 1: Criminal
A judge, a deputy prosecutor and a member of the state parole board are facing off for the criminal division seat currently held by Judge Lee Munson. The court handles misdemeanors primarily, but it also deals with first appearances in felony cases. The court also signs warrants in felony cases. Pay is $131,017 per year for a four-year term.
Alice Lightle, 54, who was appointed Little Rock environmental judge by Gov. Mike Beebe in 2007 and is a former assistant state attorney general and commissioner on the state Workers Compensation Commission, said the big issue for the court will be to look at freeing up jail space. To that end, she said she will explore new approaches in community punishment, including the possible use of treatment. She lives in Little Rock.
Hugh Finkelstein, 44, of Little Rock, who has spent 12 years in the Pulaski County prosecutor’s office, also supports expanded treatment and said he would apply for state and federal grants to fund it. He would also implement video arraignments. He’s taught criminal evidence at UALR and skills seminars to police officers around the state and has been endorsed by the Little Rock FOP, the North Little Rock FOP and the Little Rock Black Police Officers Association.
Ernest Sanders, 42, of Little Rock is a hearing examiner for the Arkansas Parole Board, which he said has given him the experience he needs to sit as judge. He was formerly chief of the juvenile division in the county prosecutor’s office. Sanders said he would work on video arraignment and jail space issues. He also said he would increase random home visits and require community involvement from parole officers.
Little Rock District Court
Division 3: Environmental
Four lawyers in private practice are running for this open seat, now held by Judge Alice Lightle, who as Beebe’s appointee to the court can’t succeed herself. The court enforces city code and hears small claims suits up to $5,000. The state is exploring the possibility of raising the threshold to $25,000, but it is unclear whether that change will happen during the tenure of the new judge. Pay is $131,017 per year for a four-year term.
Ryan Allen, 38, who does criminal defense work and civil cases and is a former deputy prosecutor in Saline and Pulaski counties, said he would try to increase the use of the court. He emphasized that he has a wide range of life experiences, including time as a musician, playing on the L.A. heavy metal scene in the 1980s.
Mark Leverett, 39, who does criminal defense and personal injury work and who is the Sherwood public defender, said he would like to expand the number of days the court is open. A former Pulaski County deputy prosecutor, he once served on the Maumelle City Council and is a board member of PARK.
Slocum Pickell, 41, who focuses on civil law, said he would like the court to deal with cases more rapidly. He added that he would work with the other divisions of the district court to implement a GED program as part of probations. He’s been endorsed by the Central Arkansas Labor Council.
Gary Sullivan, 46, attorney for the Center for Arkansas Legal Services and in private practice for 15 years, said he would look into sharing the docket with the other two courts in the district. He also said that the court should be stricter, and he pledged to enforce the city housing code in order to clean up neighborhoods. Sullivan has been endorsed by the Little Rock Black Police Officers Association and the Little Rock FOP.
North Little Rock District Court
Division 1: Civil/criminal
North Little Rock lawyer Heather Callaway, who does personal injury, family and criminal work, is running against incumbent Judge Jim Hamilton for this seat. The court’s four-year term, $84,645.34 annual paycheck, and control over its civil and criminal docket are at stake. Callaway, 34, said she is challenging Hamilton, who has held the seat for 13 years, because she is unhappy with what she sees as the court’s lax atmosphere. She’s been in private practice since 2005 and is a former director of the Pulaski County Bar Association. She is a former deputy prosecutor in Lonoke County.
“I believe there’s a lack of decorum in the courtroom,” Callaway said. “It’s my opinion that the court needs to be run a little stricter.” She said she would accomplish this by issuing bench warrants to litigants who are late to court and by limiting the time in which defendants are allowed to pay fines and court costs. She would also look at implementing more creative sentencing options. Convicts might be forced to mow grass or wear a placard on a street corner declaring their crime, she said.
Judge Hamilton, 66, professed surprise at the complaints. “Nobody has told me anything I might be doing wrong,” he said. He cited his long experience in office, including previous work as the North Little Rock city attorney, as evidence that he was doing a good job. He’s been endorsed by the North Little Rock FOP, IAFF Local No. 35 and the Central Arkansas Labor Council.
Wrightsville District Court
It’s a crowded field for Wrightsville district judge, a post being vacated by Herb Wright, who is running unopposed for retiring Circuit Judge John Langston’s seat. Six candidates are on the ballot: Rita Bailey, Kathy L. Hall, Diana Maulding, Veletta Smith, Chris Walton and Trey Wright (no relation to Herb). The court hears civil and traffic matters. The court is in Wrightsville, but all of Pulaski County will vote in the race. The position is part-time; pay is currently $16,500 per year for a four-year term, though the Wrightsville City Council may set the salary anywhere between $16,000 and $25,000 per year.
Bailey, 43, of Little Rock is in private practice. She’s been endorsed by ACORN and the Central Arkansas Labor Council. Hall, 45, of Maumelle is in private practice. Both Bailey and Hall would like to see the docket expanded. Maulding, 61, a private practice lawyer, says she’d accept the lowest salary allowed by law. Smith, 45, of Little Rock arbitrates for the Better Business Bureau. She’d like to start a peer court to educate youths about the justice system. Walton, 38, of Little Rock is the Saline County deputy prosecutor. He formerly worked for the state Department of Human Services on child welfare cases and was a hearing officer for the Arkansas Appeal Tribunal. Wright, 32, of North Little Rock, is in private practice and has served as a special judge. He pledges that collection procedures would be followed in a fair manner.