Some elected positions clearly are partisan in nature. Most voters find party labels helpful — at least to some extent — when choosing candidates for the legislative or executive branch. However, the same logic does not apply to members of the judicial branch, which is supposed to be neutral in its administration of justice.
A little over a decade ago, Arkansas voters agreed and passed Amendment 80, which removed the election of judges from the partisan process. The result is citizens can enter a courtroom presided over by judges who have not declared loyalty to a political party to be elected. The new method has not created a perfect judiciary, but the benefit is apparent.
A bipartisan group of state lawmakers — mainly attorneys — sought to take the logical next step of including prosecutors in nonpartisan elections. Republican Rep. Matthew Shepherd, an El Dorado lawyer, introduced HB1412 ,which would have made the office of prosecutor nonpartisan and moved up judicial runoff elections from November to June.
“What is the difference between a Republican prosecutor and a Democrat prosecutor,” Shepherd asked from the floor of the House on Monday while speaking for his bill. “Does one enforce the law and the other does not?”
Democratic Rep. Nate Steel joined Shepherd in pushing for the change, drawing on his experience as a prosecutor in southern Arkansas. Steel said it’s not natural when a deputy prosecuting attorney wants to move up to the elected position of prosecutor and is forced to pick a political party.
The change to nonpartisan election of prosecutors seems logical. For one thing, prosecutors hold a tremendous amount of power in deciding whether to charge citizens with a crime. Unlike some states where a grand jury always decides whether to issue an indictment, in Arkansas those decisions often are made by the prosecuting attorney’s office. Obviously any action to remove any bias, or even an appearance of bias, is beneficial for justice being fairly served.
However, logic does not always seem to carry the day in the Legislature, made up of members who have been elected with loyalties to a political party. In this case, the two major political party organizations have a direct interest in defeating the change — money.
The change would take filing fees away from the state parties; instead fees would be paid to the state. Fees would go into a fund that would help divert the cost of the election, with excess funds going to help fund the financially strapped Trial Court Administrative Assistant Fund.
Those fees are a nice source of cash flow for the political parties. In the prosecuting attorney elections of 2010, the Democratic Party of Arkansas took in $180,000 from 24 prosecuting attorney candidates, who paid a filing fee of $7,500 each. The Republican Party of Arkansas took in $17,500 from five candidates, who paid a filing fee of $3,500 each. Republicans, feeling hopeful about their chance of recruiting more candidates as the state grows redder, since have raised their fees to $7,500, too.
Just as similar measures in previous legislatures, Shepherd’s bill was defeated. On Monday, the bill got 40 votes — 11 short of the 51 needed for passage in the House. The vote was relatively evenly split across party lines.
Public interest in making a change likely will have to grow before legislators will be willing to effectively take away the filing fee revenue from political parties.
Meanwhile, here’s my response to Rep. Shepherd’s question: I have never heard of one example of how a Republican prosecutor is any different than a Democratic prosecutor, or vice versa. Not one.
It’s clear the only issue at play is money for political parties, not the issue of what’s best for Arkansas.
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Jason Tolbert is an accountant and conservative political blogger. His blog — The Tolbert Report — is linked at ArkansasNews.com. His e-mail is jason@TolbertReport.com.