Justices Karen Baker and Rhonda Wood advance to runoff in contest to lead Arkansas Supreme Court

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas Supreme Court Justices Karen Baker and Rhonda Wood advanced to a runoff election for chief justice this fall, ensuring that for the first time a woman will be elected to lead the seven-member panel.

Justice Barbara Webb and former state legislator Jay Martin were also running for the chief justice post.

Justice Courtney Hudson was reelected Tuesday in another race. Both races ensured Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders will have two new appointments to the court in January.

Hudson defeated Circuit Judge Carlton Jones in the race for position two on the court. The two were running to replace Justice Cody Hiland, who Sanders appointed last year.

Baker, Martin, Webb and Wood ran to succeed Chief Justice Dan Kemp, who was first elected in 2016 and is not seeking reelection. The court has not had a woman elected chief justice before, though it has had a woman appointed to the post.

Arkansas' judicial races are nonpartisan, though four of the justices currently on the court have Republican ties.

Tuesday’s results also ensure women will retain a majority on the court. Women have held a 4-3 majority on the court since 2015.

The seats were up as the state’s highest court is poised to take up key cases in several high-profile areas. Abortion rights supporters are trying to get a measure on the November ballot that would scale back a ban on the procedure that took effect when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade.

The court has also been asked to weigh in on a fight between Sanders and the state Board of Corrections over who runs Arkansas’ prison system. Attorney General Tim Griffin is appealing a judge’s ruling against a law Sanders signed that took away the board’s ability to hire and fire the state’s top corrections official.

Hudson’s victory will create a vacancy on the court in January when she takes the position two seat. The incumbent justice ran for Hiland’s seat in an effort to serve more time on the court because of the state’s judicial retirement rules.

Sanders appointed Hiland to the court last year to fill the vacancy created by Justice Robin Wynne’s death. Hiland, a former state Republican Party chairman and federal prosecutor, was not allowed to run for the seat since he had been appointed to it.

Hudson said she wanted to honor Wynne and his family, and thanked the people of Arkansas for their support.

“I'd like continue what I've always done in providing senior leadership on the court and ensuring that our focus remains on the constitution and that the rule of law always wins the day, and being a good judge," Hudson told The Associated Press Tuesday night.

Jones would have become the first Black justice elected to the court if he had won the race.

Arkansas’ court races have been the focus of outside conservative groups in recent years, and Hudson in 2018 sued to block ads from the groups that targeted her. Those groups, however, stayed away this year’s court races.

Two of the candidates for chief justice had Republican Party links: Webb is married to a former state GOP chairman and Wood was appointed to a judgeship by Sanders’ father, former Gov. Mike Huckabee. Martin ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for governor two years ago touting his opposition to abortion.

Baker won reelection in 2022, defeating a former Republican lawmaker who touted himself as a constitutional conservative.