LITTLE ROCK — A legislative panel Wednesday appeared to be divided on what changes, if any, are needed to reform the process by which Arkansas chooses judges.

LITTLE ROCK — A legislative panel Wednesday appeared to be divided on what changes, if any, are needed to reform the process by which Arkansas chooses judges.


The Senate Judiciary Committee discussed but did not reach a consensus on whether the state should end elections for seats on the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals and whether it should require disclosure of spending by outside groups in judicial races.


Outside groups spent heavily on two Arkansas Supreme Court races this year, and in each race the candidate targeted with negative — and some say unfair — third-party advertising was defeated.


Rep. Clarke Tucker, D-Little Rock, told the panel Wednesday that some outside groups are not required to disclose their donors, which he said can create a situation in which a person who is appearing before a judge in court knows that someone spent a large sum of money to get the judge elected but has no way of knowing whether to ask the judge to recuse because the source of the money is secret.


"What’s at stake, in my opinion, is the integrity of our democracy," he said.


Tucker said he has drafted a bill that would require a group to disclose its donors if it spends more than $1,000 in a calendar year on "electioneering communications," or communications that identify a candidate and can only be reasonably interpreted as an attempt to influence a vote for or against a candidate.


Several people testified against the proposal, including Jerry Cox, president of the Family Council, and David Ray and Teresa Oelke, state president and vice president, respectively, of Americans for Prosperity. Both are conservative groups.


Oelke said AFP employees have been targeted for harassment by opponents of AFP’s political positions and said she fears donors would be subjected to similar harassment if their names were made public. Cox and Ray said requiring disclosure of donors would create a chilling effect that would discourage people from supporting causes they believe in.


Sen. David Johnson, D-Little Rock, asked why donations that fund ads by third-party groups should not be public in the same way that donations that fund political candidates’ ads are public under current law.


Oelke said the outside groups’ ads are different from ads that say "vote for me."


"That’s a legal distinction you’re making, but I’m saying in all practical ways besides that they are the same thing, and they should be subject to the same standard," Johnson said.


Sen. Linda Collins-Smith, R-Pocahontas, said she has concerns about requiring disclosure.


"I never want to limit an individual’s right to donate to an organization that they may or may not want their name spread everywhere," she said.


The committee also discussed the possibility of replacing Supreme Court and Court of Appeals elections with a merit selection process. Gov. Asa Hutchinson has said he favors a merit selection process for Supreme Court justices.


Supreme Court Justice Karen Baker told the committee that if Arkansas’ appellate judges were first appointed and thereafter subject to retention elections, that would not stop undisclosed, or "dark," money from influencing the process.


"Dark money has been a much more serious problem than we have had here in Arkansas in states that have an appointment and retention system," she said.


Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffin urged the panel not to make the process of choosing judges less democratic.


"It does not make sense to have people who have the longest terms get the least amount of democratic input in their selection," he said.


Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, R-Little Rock, the committee’s chairman, was asked after the meeting whether he hoped the panel would make a recommendation in time for the Legislature to consider it during a special session this year.


"If we could develop some consensus and everybody rally around it, then sure, this year, but it doesn’t look like there is consensus," he said. "We’ll continue to study. This is just the beginning step in the process."