Arkansas judge announces bid for state Supreme Court seat

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — An Arkansas judge announced Monday he's running for a seat on the state's Supreme Court, setting up another potentially expensive and heated race in a state that has drawn heavy involvement from outside conservative groups.

Pulaski County Circuit Judge Morgan "Chip" Welch said he was running for the seat currently held by Justice Jo Hart in next year's election. Hart, who has served on the court since 2013, has not said whether she's seeking re-election next year. Welch, who has served as a judge since 2013, formed an exploratory committee in August as he looked at a run for the seat. No other candidates have announced a run for the seat.

"The Arkansans I've talked to want to keep the Supreme Court independent, nonpartisan and fair to everyone, like our state constitution provides," Welch said in a statement.

Welch previously said his decision would largely depend on whether Hart ran for re-election. Welch told The Associated Press that he told Hart last week he was going to run for the seat. Hart did not immediately return calls seeking comment Monday.

Arkansas' nonpartisan Supreme Court races in recent years have drawn the focus of outside conservative groups that have spent millions on TV ads and attack mailers. Justice Courtney Rae Hudson won re-election last year after two conservative groups spent nearly $2.5 million trying to unseat her. Hudson went by Courtney Goodson before her divorce this year. The groups, the Judicial Crisis Network and the Republican State Leadership Committee, have not said whether they'll get involved in Arkansas' race.

Welch said he'll be prepared if any groups target him with false attacks on his record.

"If it happens and somebody comes in from out of state and spends a million dollars trying to distort who I am, I'm going to meet distortions with facts," Welch said.

The one-week filing period for next year's election begins on Nov. 4 at noon. The court election will be held March 3, with a runoff if necessary in the November general election.

Barbara Webb, a former prosecutor and an administrative law judge for the state Workers Compensation Commission, said she is considering a run for the seat. Webb is married to state GOP Chairman Doyle Webb. David Sterling, who lost to Hudson in last year's Supreme Court race, also said he hasn't ruled out running.

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