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State of Arkansas

History of Reform Efforts: Arkansas

Formal Changes Since Inception

1836
Under Arkansas’ original constitution, judges of the supreme court and the circuit court were elected by a majority of both houses of the legislature to eight-year and four-year terms respectively.

1848
Circuit court judges elected by the people.

1864
Supreme court justices elected by the people.

1868
Chief justice of the supreme court appointed by the governor with senate consent; associate justices elected by the people. Circuit court judges appointed by the governor with senate consent to six-year terms.

1874
All supreme court justices, including the chief justice, elected by the people. Circuit court judges elected to four-year terms.

1978
Legislature empowered to establish court of appeals. Judges elected to eight-year terms.

2000
In the 2000 election, the Arkansas electorate voted to adopt Amendment 80, which formally changed Arkansas' judicial selection method from partisan to nonpartisan elections. In addition, the amendment merged circuit, chancery, probate, and juvenile courts into a single trial court of general jurisdiction--the circuit court. It also consolidated courts of limited jurisdiction into one court--the district court. Term lengths for judges of the circuit court were increased to six years, and term lengths for district court judges were set at four years. The Arkansas Republican Party had supported the move to nonpartisan elections since 1990, while the Arkansas Democratic Party preferred the system in place. Democrats argued that, because judges cannot campaign on issues, political designations are helpful to voters. Democrats also recognized that a move to nonpartisan elections would drastically reduce the amount of filing fees paid to the party. In 2000, the Democratic Party received $110,000 in filing fees from judicial candidates, approximately 10% of the party's annual budget. The Republican Party collected approximately $20,000, about 3% of its budget. The amendment passed the house on a narrow 54-35 vote--only three votes more than needed to make the ballot--after some Democratic legislators tried to remove the provision on nonpartisan elections. Amendment 80 also had the support of the Arkansas Bar Association, the Arkansas Judicial Council, and the League of Women Voters. A total of $206,207 was spent by proponents of Amendment 80. Of this total, the Arkansas Bar Association contributed $155,102, the Arkansas Judicial Council contributed $10,000, the Arkansas Republican Party contributed $15,000, and law firms and individual attorneys contributed $26,105. The amendment received 57% of the vote.

2001
The general assembly enacted a nonpartisan elections law. Elections for nonpartisan judicial offices are held in conjunction with preferential primaries in May. If no candidate receives a majority of the vote, the two candidates getting the most votes will be in a runoff held during the November general election. There is no prohibition on nonpartisan judicial candidates seeking political party endorsement or purporting to have been endorsed by a political party.