It was a fund-raising picnic, in a small community not terribly far from Little Rock, for a non-profit organization. It being an even-numbered year a few candidates for public office were milling about, shaking hands, passing out campaign cards, soliciting votes. After explaining that I did not live within his district, I fell to talking to one of them, a candidate for trial judge.

It was a fund-raising picnic, in a small community not terribly far from Little Rock, for a non-profit organization. It being an even-numbered year a few candidates for public office were milling about, shaking hands, passing out campaign cards, soliciting votes. After explaining that I did not live within his district, I fell to talking to one of them, a candidate for trial judge.

A quite nice fellow, he related that at a recent civic club appearance alongside his opponent, the rival began his pitch by declaring that he was running despite the antagonism of “the liberal media.” It was all he could do, my new acquaintance said, to not laugh out loud, both of us by then laughing out loud. “I’ll bet you don’t even know who my opponent is,” he ventured. No, I didn’t. But I had some sense of the jurisdiction, and if there is a certifiably “liberal” news outlet within a hundred miles of it I have never come across it.

I don’t know if the candidate I met was trying to make a point with his anecdote, but in fact he made two: judicial contests, once genteel affairs, are beginning more and more to resemble bareknuckled partisan races despite the official non-partisan status of the Arkansas bench; secondly, that candidates for the courts are often, even usually, woefully undercovered by the press, print and electronic, “liberal” or conservative. Fresh evidence of the former and the imperative for correction of the latter were on vivid display earlier in the week. The state Bar Association and the Administrative Office of the Courts, an agency of the Arkansas Supreme Court, joined with the Clinton School of Public Service for a one-day tutorial on the trend toward a politicized judiciary.

Yes, there have been some fairly raw judicial campaigns in Arkansas, but fairly few; and nothing like the switchblade-and-meat axe rumbles in some other states. To watch some of the television commercials aired by or in behalf of state judicial candidates in Iowa, Michigan, Texas, New Hampshire and elsewhere is to praise anew the wisdom of the Founding Fathers for assigning life tenure to federal judges, the best, perhaps only, guarantee of their independence from, if not politics, at least the passions of the moment.

When former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay threatened to “investigate” federal judges for their “behavior” after the Terry Schiavo debacle it was clear that “behavior” meant decisions he did not agree with. So it was that three Iowa Supreme Court justices, presumably using their best legal judgment in approving gay marriage, prompted impeachment demands in the legislature and a successful effort to deny their re-confirmation at the polls in the next election. Fear of retribution come election time was obviously behind the Arkansas Supreme Court’s decision, two generations ago, to uphold the state ban on the teaching of evolution. The finding drew a memorably sarcastic reprimand from the U.S. Supreme Court, which unanimously overturned the law.

With no likelihood of an appointed judiciary in Arkansas, a combination of factors offer themselves as inducements to the best justice money can buy, to a somewhat more civilized, broader-based version of lynch law.

1. Local and state courts are increasingly compelled to consider politically explosive social questions such as gay marriage, gay adoption and church-state issues, often, former Texas chief justice Tom Phillips told the seminar, to clean up a mess left by state legislators.

2. The legally-sanctioned rise of political action committees, “independent” organizations and “SuperPACs,” well-financed, anonymous, accountable to no one.

3. A steep decline in public esteem of all “authority” institutions, local bar associations included. Understandable, Phillips noted, “when a handful of ‘elites’ can almost bankrupt the world.”

4. Voter disinterest in the credentials and qualifications of judicial candidates, an invitation to political imagemakers to elevate a mediocrity or destroy his or her better. Associate Justice Bob Brown of the state Supreme Court and some like-minded attorneys have proposed a rapid-response “truth squad” to evaluate judicial campaign advertisements and controversies, but its prospects are quite uncertain; there appears to little appetite for it in the General Assembly and substantial opposition. Phillips, while sympathetic to the Brown concept, recommended as well a program to school the public in the necessity of an independent judiciary. Which is where I think people in my trade come in — or should.

What the press ought to do is vetting judicial candidates as never before: examining their views on independence, their track record as attorneys; identifying, to the extent possible, their campaign contributions. This, too: analysis of their advertising; there should be no reluctance to report the misleading or patently false as exactly that. To real conservatives, there could be no higher mission for the “liberal media.”

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Steve Barnes is host of Arkansas Week on AETN.