The race to replace retiring Pulaski County Circuit Judge Vann Smith is a contest between Andrew Ballard, a North Little Rock family-law attorney, and Shawn Johnson, an assistant attorney general.
Smith, 69, was elected in 1988 and is considered the 6th Judicial District’s most senior judge. He’s one of six judges retiring this year, creating a turnover on the 17-member bench that serves Perry and Pulaski counties that has not been seen in at least 18 years.
Officially titled Circuit Judge District 06, Division 14, Subdistrict 6.1, Smith’s successor as 14th Division judge will carry a caseload similar to Smith’s current family-law docket, with the addition of probate and mental-health cases.
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However, court rules require case assignments to be revisited by the entire bench every two years, so caseload changes regularly occur. Circuit judges earn $168,096 a year and are elected for six-year terms.
The election is Nov. 3 with early voting running through Nov. 2. According to the provisions of the 1992 Hunt Decree that settled a voting-rights lawsuit, eligible voters are all Perry County residents and Pulaski County residents who live in the northwestern two-thirds of the county. Those voters must reside in precincts 1-15, 17-52, 56-115, 121-127 and 136-137.
Ballard, 40, and Johnson, 44, are in a runoff election because neither got the required majority necessary to secure the post in the March nonpartisan judicial elections.
Ballard says he’s the best choice to succeed Smith as a family-law judge because he has experience that his opponent does not. Family law is his expertise, both as a lawyer practicing in that field for his entire career and as a father who has raised three stepdaughters, the children of his law partner and wife, Lisa Ballard, he said.
“I am running because I think a circuit judge handling family-law issues should have experience making decisions for children and families,” he said. “Time, hard work, and dedication to children and families develops experience. There is no substitute for being married, raising children, [and] being a trial lawyer representing children and families.”
Ballard says fatherhood has been inspiring, both professionally and personally.
“My three daughters … are grown and on their own, [and] their support and countless hours of volunteering on the campaign indicates that they believe I made the right decisions in their lives, and they want me to be able to help other children and families by making decisions to make their lives better,” he said. “Raising the three of them into kind and generous adults has been and always will be my greatest accomplishment.”
Ballard also has written a key legal text on Arkansas family law, which is published by Thompson Reuters Corp. with annual updates.
“My book is purchased by Arkansas family law attorneys to help them navigate through the courts and stay current on Arkansas domestic relations, probate and juvenile law,” he said.
He regularly trains other lawyers in the field through numerous continuing legal education courses presented by the Arkansas Bar Association, the Administrative Office of the Courts and the Pulaski County Bar.
High points in his career have included completing the training to be an ad litem attorney, one who specializes in representing the best interests of children by judicial appointment.
“This has allowed me to make sure children live in the best place to nurture their development,” he said.
Johnson said his candidacy is a reflection of his lifelong commitment to public service. He said his current position as a senior assistant attorney general specializing in consumer advocacy gives him unique credentials for the post.
“I have been a public servant for nearly 20 years, and I am committed to protecting everyday Arkansans as a judge,” Johnson said. “I have battled scams, the robocalls, the opioid crisis, and have taken a case to the U.S. Supreme Court in an attempt to lower prescription drug costs. My work in identifying and rooting out scams and deception is the type of experience that children and families need in family courts during trying personal circumstances.”
Johnson said his work has taught him how to examine issues from all angles and helped him develop the reflective skills necessary for a judge.
“My friends tell me that I have a way of listening to issues that they mention, and, without passing judgment or indicating my personal preference, I can ask important questions that identify issues and potential weaknesses in the idea,” he said. “[This] has made me a better lawyer, and it is one that will benefit our community and our courts.”
Johnson said he’s had a long and abiding interest in family law, after seeing his parents divorce as he entered his teens. That firsthand experience is hard to come by, he said.
“When I was 13 years old, my parents divorced. It was a difficult and uncertain time — one that shaped me into the person I am today,” he said. “That experience has readied me to serve as a judge. I will be focused on the effects of judicial decisions on children — the worries they face and the fears that they feel. This type of experience is something that no one can be taught, and it is an experience that will help children and families in the circuit court.”
Johnson said he is proud to number among his supporters three judges who have inspired him, the law school professor and former state Chief Justice Howard Brill, retired Circuit Judge Marion Humphrey and Jim Hamilton, a retired North Little Rock district judge.
According to the secretary of state, Johnson is outcollecting Ballard and outspending him by a large margin.
Johnson shows to have taken in $158,865 in contributions while spending $147,180. The office shows his top contributors each put up $2,800. They are Pete Kennemer, Randall Sharum, Ann Kausch, Jane Sharum and S. Graham Catlett.
Ballard reports $26,870 in donations while spending $32,428. His top contributors are Rodney Ballard, Lydia Ballard, Brian Faught and Keith Emis, with $2,800 each; and Sam Hilburn with $1,000
Ballard said he deliberately cut back on fundraising and in-person voter-outreach efforts because of the coronavirus pandemic, shifting to virtual campaigning on the internet for safety’s sake.
“While our state was hurting financially, I suspended fundraising for my campaign because the last thing I wanted to do was ask already hurting Arkansans to sacrifice their hard-earned money for my campaign,” he said. “I have relied on word of mouth to get my qualifications out to the voters as I will not ask my volunteers to jeopardize their safety and others safety by assembling in large groups or knocking on doors. I have attended virtual forums but have not made any in-person speaking engagements as I have high-risk family members that I need to keep from harm as much as possible.”
Johnson said he has not been idle since the March elections ended and the pandemic struck the United States. He said he’s used the time to increase his volunteer efforts and renew his dedication to public service.
“When the pandemic hit, I knew that I was of no use to anyone by staying bottled up at home, so I put on a mask and went to volunteering with food distribution in our community. This effort galvanized my desire to serve all the more,” he said. “My supporters know that that is the type of person I am, and it reinforced their faith in my candidacy. As a judge, I will always be the type of public servant who puts in the work to make sure that the job is done right.”
A full third of the Perry-Pulaski county bench — its most senior members — is leaving this year, with five departing because of a 55-year-old law that strips judges of their retirement if they are elected after the age of 70. That’s a substantial loss.
Circuit judges contribute 5% to 6% of their pay to retirement, which is matched by a 12% state contribution. They are vested after eight years and fully vested at 25 years, which means they can draw up to 80% of their annual salary in retirement.
The other departing judges are Joyce Warren,Mary McGowan, Chris Piazza and Richard Moore. Also retiring is Wiley Branton, although he is young enough to run for another term without giving up his retirement.