Incumbent Circuit Judge Bill Benton cited his experience on the job while challenger Mac Norton said he would offer a “new perspective” when the two spoke Thursday to the West Pine Bluff Rotary Club.
The two are both running for the Third Division of the Eleventh Judicial District-West in the May 20 non-partisan judicial general election.
Benton, a Pine Bluff native, was first elected to the bench in 2002, defeating several challengers, and re-elected in 2008 without opposition.
He said that before being elected to the bench, he practiced law for 29 years, and served as a deputy prosecutor under the late prosecutor Wayne Matthews for 20 years, as well as being the city judge at White Hall.
Benton said all the judges in the district are of equal rank, and while their jobs are determined by an administrative plan, he has filled in for other judges in criminal matters, signed search warrants and performed other duties as needed in addition to his primary job, which is to deal with divorces, paternity, probate cases, child support and other civil matters.
“When I was an attorney (in private practice and at the prosecutor’s office) I wanted to see cases set on the docket,” he said. “When the case went to court I wanted to get a fair hearing and when we got a decision, I wanted that decision explained.”
He said he has tried to adopt that same approach to his work on the bench and has made decisions on “over 16,000 cases that affect lives.”
He also said that in his time on the bench, only 13 of his decisions have been appealed, and in 12 of those cases, his decision was affirmed.
“I do my best to make the right decision based on the law,” Benton said. “I take a lot of notes and do a lot of listening.”
Benton said that some of his decisions don’t make some people happy but “somebody’s got to win and somebody’s got to lose.
“Nobody gets an inside track,” he said. “To use a football term, when they enter the courtroom the score is zero to zero.”
Norton, also a Pine Bluff native, said his law practice consists primarily of “family law.”
“I see a lot of people hurting,” he said. “The judge hearing those cases needs a lot of compassion and sympathy because most of those people don’t want to be there.”
Norton said that 14 years ago, the legal system in the state changed with the adoption of Amendment 80, taking what were then called probate and chancery judges and making them circuit judges and what “Bill and Judge (Leon) Jamison do are the old chancery judges.
“The topic is still family law,” Norton said. “I’ve practiced family law for 35 years so I’ve been in the trenches for 35 years. I want to bring a different perspective to the job.”
Regarding Benton’s statement that only one of his decisions had been reversed, Norton said “I’m the only attorney who got Judge Benton reversed.”
He said he would have an “open-door policy,” and would end the set times for certain court business that exist now, such as handling divorce cases or child-support cases only at certain times.
“I’ve discussed it with the other judges and I think it can be done,” Norton said, adding that he had not discussed the idea with Benton “because I’m running against him.”