Luther Sutter said Monday evening that he entered the Division 5 At Large District 11 West Circuit Court judicial race against sitting Judge Jodi Dennis because she disqualified him from a case five years ago.
“I’m running because she disqualified me from a case and as a result disenfranchised six black truck drivers who are still waiting for justice five years later,” Sutter said during opening remarks in a debate with Dennis at the Pine Bluff Convention Center, as part of a Candidate Forum sponsored by the Pine Bluff Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the W. Harold Flowers Law Society.
“I believe I can do a better job than Judge Dennis,” Sutter said as he dramatically shook his right hand in a gesture that resembled a mother scolding her child.
Dennis did not respond directly to Sutter’s comments.
“I have spent the past 10 years as a Circuit Court judge and have made sure that I keep the Constitution safe,” Dennis said.
The moderator, retired Sixth Division Circuit Judge Marion Humphrey, read questions from the audience submitted on flash cards.
Sutter, whose law firm is in Benton, was asked where he is currently living.
“For the past year I’ve been working to bring jobs to Pine Bluff,” Sutter said. “I have been working with the airport commission and city and county government. I have been the attorney for the Pine Bluff School District as well. I moved here last month with my wife and son. I dare anyone to challenge my commitment to Jefferson County.”
Dennis emphasized her deep roots in the area.
“I have been a resident of Jefferson County for 30 years,” Dennis said.
Sutter said several times that he believes in the power of the jury system in rendering a fair verdict.
“I believe in the jury system and I believe that we need compassionate judges,” Sutter said. “I will be a compassionate judge. I’m a big believer in juries. Very rarely do they get it wrong. In the few instances when that happens I believe that the judge should be there to act as a check.”
Both candidates were asked how many black people each had on their staffs.
“Right now there are none,” Dennis said. “But I have had black staffers in the past. The fact that I don’t right now has no hidden meaning. I have hired all kinds of people.”
Sutter pleaded ignorance on numbers.
“The short answer is I don’t know, but I want you to know that I will always hire the most qualified people for the job,” Sutter said. “There is strength in diversity.”
In his closing remarks, Sutter asked rhetorically why so much fuss was being made about where he lives.
“A lot has been said along the lines of ‘Is Luther a carpetbagger?’ but my question is, why is that bad?” Sutter said. “Why don’t people want me and my family to come here to Pine Bluff?”
Dennis pointed to her experience.
“I am the best candidate and I believe that part of the reason for that is my perspective,” Dennis said. “I have been both deputy prosecuting attorney and assistant public defender. As a judge I listen to the presentation of facts and I follow the law.”
District 16 State Rep.
The three candidates vying for the District 16 seat are all challengers— former District 11 State Rep. Efrem Elliott, former Pine Bluff city employee Ken Ferguson and Pine Bluff real estate developer Win Trafford.
Humphrey served as moderator and again read questions submitted by the audience.
The candidates were first asked what specific qualities each of them would bring to the job.
“I am in the business of bringing people together and I am literally in the trenches of this community every day,” Trafford said. “I know what the problems are. I know that retention of our young people is the top issue that needs to be addressed.”
Ferguson said he would be an inclusive leader.
“I have been a Pine Bluff resident all my life,” Ferguson said. “As a representative I won’t just represent the residents of District 16. I will represent everyone in Jefferson and Lincoln counties.”
Elliott said his previous legislative experience makes him the right choice.
“I was assistant speaker pro tem in the 88th General Assembly,” Elliott said. “You don’t make it to that level without being recognized for your leadership abilities. We have lagged in providing activities for our children and I will address that.”
Trafford was asked why he is just beginning his campaign only 30 days before the May primary election.
“I prayed, soul-searched and thought really hard about this,” Trafford said. “I decided that I had to do this now because Jefferson County is losing roughly a family of three every day. The issue is retention and I will work night and day to turn things around.”
The candidates each had ideas about how to bring economic development to the area.
“During my time with the Department of Workforce Services I saw that there was a need to properly educate students to meet the needs of area employers,” Ferguson said. “Education and economic development go hand in hand. I had a role in working with state legislators to designate $10 million to $15 million as part of a plan to train people to match the needs of available jobs.”
“We need to overhaul our K-12 education,” Trafford said. “We need to talk to businesses and ask them what they need from their work force and then work with the schools to educate students to meet those needs.”
“We have UAPB and Southeast Arkansas College so we have the work force that we need,” Elliott said. “We just need to keep people here to help develop our economy. Why does White Hall, a city of 5,000, have things together better than Pine Bluff, a city of 49,000? Because White Hall reinvests in its community. That is what Pine Bluff needs to do.”
Division 3 Circuit Court
Incumbent Division 3 Judge Bill Benton squared off against challenger Mac Norton, a longtime Pine Bluff attorney.
Benton emphasized his determination to afford equal justice to everyone who comes before him.
“Access to justice is the main concern of the court,” Benton said. “A right to be heard. We are getting more and more pro se [representing themselves] litigants. All sides must have equal treatment.”
Norton said that an efficiently run caseload should not get in the way of gathering all relevant facts.
“I intend to modify the rules on time limits in cases,” Norton said. “If time runs out before all of the facts necessary for the judge to make an informed decision are presented then more time needs to be given.”
Benton said that while he does not impose time limits on attorneys, he does give each side equal time.
“Even though more and more people are representing themselves because they can’t afford an attorney, Legal Aid is not able to provide attorneys to all that need them due to limited resources,” Benton said. “I treat both sides fairly.”
Norton said a judge has to be careful when trying to help an unrepresented litigant.
“You have to avoid the appearance of impropriety,” Norton said.