Arkansas judges issued contradictory orders Friday on efforts to halt a conservative group’s attack ad against a state Supreme Court justice, with one judge ordering several stations to stop airing the spot and another judge allowing other stations to run it.
The conflicting decisions over the Judicial Crisis Network’s ad targeting Justice Courtney Goodson come days before voters head to the polls in an election that’s been dominated by a flood of TV ads and mailers for the high court race. The rulings have pitted opponents of so-called “dark money” groups that have turned Arkansas’ court campaigns into some of the nation’s roughest against First Amendment advocates who say halting the ads is an unconstitutional restriction on free speech.
Goodson, who is running against Appeals Court Judge Kenneth Hixson and Department of Human Services Chief Counsel David Sterling i, sued to block the ads and has called them defamatory. The ad criticizes Goodson over gifts from donors and a pay raise the court requested last year. Pulaski County Circuit Judge Chris Piazza, who blocked the ads Friday, said the spots could pose irreparable harm on the justice, calling them misleading.
“There’s something obscene about what’s going on with the type of judicial advertising that’s going on right now,” Piazza said.
Goodson, who lost her bid for chief justice two years ago after facing a similar barrage of ads from the Judicial Crisis Network, called the ruling a victory for fighting outside groups interfering in judicial races.
“This is a very exciting day, not just for me, but for the independence of the judiciary and for fair elections in Arkansas,” Goodson told reporters.
The Judicial Crisis Network criticized the ruling blocking its ad, saying the spot was factual and that voters have a right to be informed about judges. The Washington-based group, which does not disclose its donors, has spent more than $765,000 on TV ads going after Goodson and Hixson, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, which tracks judicial campaign spending.
The efforts to halt the group’s ad have been criticized by First Amendment advocates, who called the move an unconstitutional attempt to restrict the stations’ free speech. It was not clear if the Little Rock area stations would appeal the ruling.
“This case is about free speech. It’s not about dark money,” said attorney John Tull, who represents the parent companies for a Little Rock area TV station and two in northwest Arkansas. “It’s not about whether someone won a race or lost a race because of ads from outside sources. It’s about free speech and whether an injunction of political speech is an impermissible prior restraint on the First Amendment.”
A Washington county judge who had prevented the northwest Arkansas area stations from airing the anti-Goodson ad recused himself from the case after facing questions about his wife’s work for the justice’s husband’s law firm. The special judge named to handle that case also said he found the spot misleading, but said he didn’t see how he could effectively or legally block the ad.
A judge is scheduled to hold a hearing on Monday in a third lawsuit Goodson has filed trying to halt the ad from running in the Fort Smith area.