LITTLE ROCK — A legislative committee studying possible alternatives to Arkansas’ current system of judicial elections heard information Friday about judicial selection methods in use around the country.

LITTLE ROCK — A legislative committee studying possible alternatives to Arkansas’ current system of judicial elections heard information Friday about judicial selection methods in use around the country.


Rep. Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, has sponsored legislation previously to change the way Arkansas chooses judges, but he said Friday the committee is merely gathering information now and no new legislation is pending.


Currently, Arkansas chooses judges for all state positions by non-partisan popular election, a method some detractors say makes candidates beholden to big-money donors and raises concerns about outside groups spending huge sums to influence elections.


"I think it’s a very important issue," Shepherd said. "When I initially filed it three years ago, my intent was to bring the issue to the forefront because I believe it was something that needed to be discussed. You could look to other states around the nation and see there was a trend developing, particularly when it comes to state appellate court positions, and I think that trend continues today."


Arkansas is one of 22 states that select judges by popular election, and one of 16 with non-partisan judicial elections, Matthew Smith, assistant director of legal services for the Bureau of Legislative Research, told the panel.


Six states use a partisan election system, four are filled by gubernatorial appointment, and 22 states use a process of merit selection that varies from state to state. One idea that has been suggested in Arkansas is to use merit selection to fill an initial term, with subsequent terms to be decided through a straight up-or-down vote of the people, known as a retention election.


Rep. Marshall Wright, D-Forrest City, said he believes something needs to be done to lessen the influence of money in judicial elections, but he said his feelings on the issue are mixed.


"It’s unfortunate that money plays such a role in any election," he said. "But the flip side is, I don’t like to tell a general citizen, whoever that citizen may be, that they can’t use their own money to do with how they please."


Wright said he thinks the merit selection system would solve some problems, but it could be subject to outside influence all the same. That is no excuse for inaction, however, he said.


"There’s not going to be a perfect system, but there’s got to be a better way than how we do it now," he said.