Arkansas House Rejects Changes to Prosecutor Elections

by Michael Stratford, The Associated Press  on Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013 7:15 am  

LITTLE ROCK - A bipartisan group of Arkansas House lawmakers on Monday blocked a proposal to remove party politics from the election of state prosecutors.

The House voted 50-40 to reject the bipartisan measure that would make the 28 elected prosecuting attorneys in the state nonpartisan positions. The candidates would no longer be listed on the ballot as Democrats or Republicans and wouldn't have to run in primary elections.

The proposal called for the state to collect the filing fees for prosecutor candidates, with the first $100,000 collected going toward a fund for state trial court assistants. Under the current system, those filing fees typically go to the respective state party.

The bill also would have moved the state's judicial runoff elections from November to June, when primary runoffs for other offices are held.

A wide range of Democrats and Republicans came down on either side of the issue of whether to make the prosecutor positions nonpartisan. The House Republican and Democratic leaders both voted in favor of the measure, while some liberals and conservatives united against the proposal.

The bill's sponsors said on the House floor that the changes are needed to promote integrity and remove partisan politics from the courtroom.

"Prosecuting attorneys enforce the law, and there should be no difference between a Republican prosecutor or Democrat prosecutor or a Green Party prosecutor, independent prosecutor," said Rep. Matthew Sheppard, R-El Dorado. "It's important we remove the party label from our prosecuting attorneys."

Opponents of the measure said party labels are important signals to voters for how a candidate may choose to exercise his or her prosecutorial discretion once in office.

"It's a devious, surreptitious way of trying to deceive voters," said Rep. John Walker, D-Little Rock. "Clearly a person can run as a Republican or a Democrat without saying he or she is one of those."

Other lawmakers said they were concerned that moving the judicial elections from November to June would reduce turnout and could cost the state extra money. Rep. Jonathan Barnett, R-Siloam Springs, said he thought changing the election of prosecutors in the state should be referred to the people as a ballot measure.

About two-thirds of Arkansas' 28 elected prosecutors said in a survey that they supported making the positions nonpartisan, according to Bob McMahan, the state's prosecutor coordinator.

State judges have been nonpartisan positions since voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2000.

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