Bradley Dean Jesson, former chief justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court and a close friend and adviser of the late U.S. Senator Dale Bumpers, died Monday at his home at Fort Smith. He was 83.
Jesson had been in ill health with heart problems for several years. He was in the hospital when he heard of Bumpers’s death Jan. 1 and asked to have another blood transfusion so that he could attend the Bumpers family funeral Monday at Charleston, but he soon lapsed into a coma. He died during the Bumpers funeral. A memorial service for Bumpers was held Sunday at Little Rock.
When Bumpers ran for governor in 1970, Jesson was one of his few early supporters and advisers. He was the governor’s legislative staff director during legislative sessions, helping develop legislation and guiding bills through the legislature. Bumpers designated him as chairman of the Arkansas Democratic Party in 1973.
When Chief Justice Jack Holt Jr. retired in 1995, Gov. Jim Guy Tucker appointed Jesson to finish his term, which ended Dec. 31, 1996. In 2004, the Supreme Court appointed Jesson and another retired justice, David Newbern of Little Rock, to serve as special masters to determine for the court whether the legislature and Gov. Mike Huckabee had complied with the court’s 2002 order to change the funding and supervision of public education so that the schools statewide met the Arkansas Constitution’s mandate that the state provide a suitable, efficient and equal education for all children. Jesson’s and Newbern’s reports were critical to the development of changes that eventually got the state into compliance. Their report is the basis of the legislature’s mandate each year to fund public schools adequately before distributing state funds for other purposes.
Jesson was born Jan. 26, 1932, at Bartlesville, Okla. His father was a pharmacist. He graduated from the University of Tulsa, attended law school there and then spent three years in the Army’s Judge Advocate General Corps, most of the time in Japan. He and his wife, the former Mary Ellen Everett of Sand Springs, Okla., moved to Fayetteville, where he finished law school at the University of Arkansas. He was a law clerk for the late U.S. District Judge John E. Miller of Fort Smith and then established a practice at Fort Smith with G. C. Hardin and Hugh Hardin. He was associated with the firm until his death.
He became friends with Bumpers, who was the sole lawyer in the nearby town of Charleston. Bumpers had established a reputation as a brilliant courtroom lawyer and clients at Fort Smith hired him. Bumpers would drive over to the Hardin firm’s legal library to do research. Their wives became good friends. They were on opposite sides in many cases but became good friends.
“Juries loved him,” Jesson said of Bumpers in a 2014 oral history.
Jesson could not support Bumpers in the 1970 primaries for governor because he was the Sebastian County Democratic chairman and had to remain neutral but joined the effort after Bumpers defeated former Gov. Orval E. Faubus for the Democratic nomination. He came to Little Rock in January 1971 to help Bumpers prepare his legislative program and move it through the General Assembly. The next two legislative sessions, in 1971 and 1973, were two of the most productive in Arkansas history, earning Bumpers the distinction of being the only “great” governor of the 20th century in a 1998 survey of political scientists and historians.
In the oral history, Jesson recalled Bumpers’s disillusionment and his obsession with dishonesty and self-dealing by officials in the government, after he became governor.
“And it goes back to a time after his election but before his inauguration. He set up offices over on the Senate side of the Capitol. I had an office over there, too, because I came down there in November. He and I a day or two a week would go over at four o’clock in the afternoon and meet with Governor Rockefeller and some of his people and just kind of talk about problems in the state government. I remember one time him asking Rockefeller. He said, ‘Governor, what are the three biggest problems you have as governor, that the governor faces?’ And Rockefeller said, ‘The first is personnel, the second is personnel and the third is personnel.’ And as we walked back over to the Senate side, Bumpers said, ‘I just don’t think that personnel’s that bad. There’s too many really good people out there wanting to serve.’ But after six months, he reminded me of that conversation. He said, ‘You know, he was absolutely right.’”
Jesson would recall in 2014 that he and another Fort Smith lawyer friend, Doug Smith, met with Bumpers all day at Little Rock in 1974 the day before Bumpers was to announce whether he would run for a third term or for the U.S. Senate. They planned the legislative program for the 1975 legislative session, his third term, which was to be a prelude to seeking the presidency in 1976. Jesson said he went home that day with no doubt that Bumpers would run for a third term and told his law partners, who promptly made contributions to J. William Fulbright. Jesson said he was shocked to hear Bumpers’s announcement the next day that he would run for the Senate.
If Bumpers had run for a third term he would have been re-elected easily and then would have been elected president in 1976, Jesson said. Bumpers’s friend Jimmy Carter, the governor of Georgia, ran and won, but Carter, he said, had not been a successful governor and did not have Bumpers’s great capabilities as a campaigner.
Jesson served 10 years on the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees.