LITTLE ROCK — A former Arkansas Supreme Court Justice served on a panel Friday that discussed possible alternatives to electing judges — coincidentally, the subject of a proposal that was filed this week in the Arkansas Legislature.

LITTLE ROCK — A former Arkansas Supreme Court Justice served on a panel Friday that discussed possible alternatives to electing judges — coincidentally, the subject of a proposal that was filed this week in the Arkansas Legislature.


At a meeting of the Pulaski County Bar Association at the Clinton Presidential Library, former state Supreme Court Justice Robert Brown was joined by Jesse Rutledge, vice president of external affairs for the National Center for State Courts in Williamsburg, Va., to discuss the two primary processes used to seat judges around the country.


House Joint Resolution 1005 by Rep. Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, would change how Arkansas Supreme Court justice positions are filled from elections to a selection process.


Arkansas is among 22 states that select Supreme Court justices by direct popular vote, while 24 states use merit selection, a selection-and-retention process involving a non-partisan selection committee.


Other states use methods including judicial appointments by the Legislature, appointments by the governor with confirmation by the Legislature, or some other variation of the appointment system.


Brown, who retired from the bench in 2012, said both of the primary methods have strengths and weaknesses but said he personally favors direct election. What he said he does not favor, however, is doing nothing to address current concerns over judicial integrity.


"I think, frankly, we are undergoing a crisis as far as the judiciary and public respect for the judiciary," Brown said.


Brown headed a task force that recommended several reforms to restore confidence in judicial campaigns, of which the main recommendations were:


• Creation of an independent, nonprofit entity to oversee judicial elections and to provide voter information via a website.


• Have judicial candidates pledge not to engage in negative campaign tactics and to disavow any such tactics used on their behalf.


• Form an independent response team to address any misleading ads immediately and to publicly correct the record.


"That’s what was recommended, and both the Board of Governors and the Judicial Council said they were good ideas, but to date, they have not been implemented," Brown said.


Rutledge said the NCSC doesn’t take a position on how judicial positions should or shouldn’t be filled, but serves to monitor issues affecting the judiciary and provide information to the states. A historical view, he said, shows that public trust in government began to steadily erode after the 1973 Watergate scandal but did not extend to the judiciary until relatively recently.


"You may not believe this but in 1995, public opinion of the U.S. Supreme Court had a favorability rating of 85 percent," Rutledge said. "Today, it’s below 50."


He attributed much of the decline to decisions made by the U.S. Supreme Court that changed how campaigns are financed by lifting many limits on donations to certain organizations and making donor information less transparent. This, he said, has led to corrosive effects in elections, a rise in negative ads and a perception that judicial candidates are indistinguishable from any other politician.


"Then you put it against the backdrop of campaign reforms and efforts to improve that haven’t gone anywhere," he said. "There’s been a lot of talk and hundreds of bills fought in state legislatures across the country, but very few have passed and very little has changed."


If HJR 1005 is referred to the ballot and approved by voters, as currently written it would provide for the formation a 15-member Judicial Nominating Committee. The governor and the Arkansas Bar Association would choose six members each, two would be chosen by the House speaker and Senate president pro tem, and those members would fill the remaining seat through a vote.


The commission would choose three people for each open court position for the governor to choose from for one initial term. Retention for subsequent terms would be decided by the voters in a yes-or-no vote.


Rutledge said the ultimate key to bringing about change is voter engagement.


"Looking at ways to get more information in the public domain is going to be important in improving elections in Arkansas," he said. "It doesn’t make the scurrilous problems go away, but it adds more speech to the debate. For advocates of the integrity of the judicial system, adding more speech is one way to try to improve the campaigns."