The race for an open seat on the Arkansas Supreme Court pits a state judge and ex-lawmaker who once advocated banning gays and lesbians from fostering and adopting children against a Little Rock lawyer

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LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas — The race for an open seat on the Arkansas Supreme Court pits a state judge and ex-lawmaker who once advocated banning gays and lesbians from fostering and adopting children against a Little Rock lawyer who touts his lack of political experience as an asset.

Circuit Judge Shawn Womack and attorney Clark Mason are running in the March 1 judicial election for the seat held by retiring Associate Justice Paul Danielson. The two are running after the court's unusually public split over its handling of a gay marriage case.

Womack, 43, has served as a circuit judge in the 14th Judicial District in north Arkansas since 2009. Before that, he served four years in the state House and six in the state Senate as a Republican. Though he's running for a non-partisan post, Womack points to his time in the Legislature as a sign that he'll respect the role of the state's highest court.

"I respect the separation of powers," Womack said. "I respect both the abilities of each of three branches, but also the limitations of each of the three branches to do the jobs they're designed to do."

Mason, 56, has practiced for 32 years as an attorney in Little Rock and has never run for public office before. Stopping short of criticizing Womack by name, he cites the fact he's never run for office as a Democrat or Republican.

"Not being a partisan politician, having never run for office, having clearly the most experience and certainly the broadest experience in the race and the fact that I am not beholden to any special interest whatsoever, I have no agenda," Mason said.

Danielson and the late Chief Justice Jim Hannah last year accused the court's majority of unnecessarily delaying the lawsuit by creating a spinoff case over which justices could participate in the appeal. The court dismissed the gay marriage lawsuit hours after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide.

Womack, who was named as a special justice to the spinoff case, declined to comment on the court's handling of the marriage lawsuit. Mason also declined to weigh in on the case, but he said he believes in working expeditiously on cases.

When he was in the state Senate, Womack introduced legislation in 2007 to ban gays and lesbians from fostering or adopting children, a move that passed the Senate but failed before a House committee. His proposal was in response to the state Supreme Court in 2006 striking down a state regulation banning gays and lesbians from being foster parents. Voters approved a similar restriction in 2008, which the court also struck down.

Womack said his votes as a legislator wouldn't influence him as a judge.

"I hung up that role of policymaker over seven years ago," Womack said. "I don't think you'll find anyone who's been in my court that has ever felt any type of partisan issue was an issue in my court."

The Supreme Court race has also been overshadowed by renewed debate over whether justices should be appointed instead of elected. Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson has said he thinks merit selection should be considered, and a lawmaker says he plans to try again with a ballot proposal to end popular election of justices.

Womack said he believes justices should still be elected.

"To give that power to someone that's elected in a partisan process and take it out of a nonpartisan judicial election system actually exacerbates the problem that you would be trying to fix," Womack said.

Mason said he's open to the idea.

"Anything that would benefit the people of our state, if there is a better solution, then I am for it," Mason said.

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