Three more members of the Arkansas Supreme Court issued individual statements today on retired Chief Justice Jim Hannah, who died Thursday in Searcy at the age of 71.
From Justice Jo Hart:
The opportunity to serve as an elected constitutional officer is a privilege known only to the citizens of a democracy. As a member of the Arkansas Supreme Court, Retired Chief Justice Jim Hannah enjoyed that privilege for fourteen years. His work during those years is embodied in the published opinions of the court. Those opinions are left as his legacy. The court has extended our condolences to the family and I add that I will keep them in my prayers.
From Justice Karen Baker:
Upon learning of the death of Retired Chief Justice Jim Hannah, I wish to recognize his many years of public service. One of his proudest accomplishments was his role in establishing a program that encouraged judges and lawyers to participate in educating the public, particularly Arkansas’s school children, regarding the role of the judicial branch of government. This investment in our children’s education is a legacy that will continue to benefit for Arkansas for many years to come. My sympathy goes out to the Hannah family during this difficult time.
From Justice Courtney Goodson:
For the vast majority of my tenure on the Arkansas Supreme Court, Retired Chief Justice Jim Hannah served as the chief justice. During the past five years, I have witnessed firsthand the important role that he played on this court and his leadership over the entire judicial branch. When I learned that Chief Justice Hannah had passed way, I immediately thought of his unwavering dedication to the principle that an independent judiciary is crucial to maintaining our democratic form of government. Today, I pray that God will embrace the Hannah family in their time of loss, and I offer them my heartfelt condolences.
These statements add to individual statements issued yesterday by Chief Justice Howard Brill, and Justices Paul Danielson and Robin Wynne. As yet, I have not seen an individual statement by Justice Rhonda Wood (though she has posted pictures of herself with Hannah on her social media accounts.).
Wood, however, gave an interview to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette yesterday. It was extraordinary. She revealed on the record what I’d reported yesterday based on confidential sources — that a majority of the court had resisted issuing a per curiam in praise of Hannah, a more or less routine happening on the retirement of judges.
Extraordinary? It is not considered good form to reveal internal court deliberations. Indeed, my reporting on internal court deliberations on the marriage case, including the split that pitted Hannah against Baker, Hart, Goodson and Wood were at the root of ill feelings that made some on the court reluctant to issue an opinion in praise of Hannah. Wood said she was in the minority in favoring a court expression. She told the Democrat-Gazette she thought Hannah should be so honored.
Note that Wood and her friends, such as former Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, worked to get this story out in a manner flattering to Wood, though her lobbying to sit on the marriage case led directly to a Hannah recusal from the case that contributed to court friction.
The revelation of a split court is meant to harm Courtney Goodson in her race for chief justice, by implying she was at the root of resistance. This helps her opponent, Judge Dan Kemp. Anyone inclined to demonize Goodson as a political animal (and she certainly is) should make no mistake about Wood’s own political skills.
This is all a distraction from a time to remember an intelligent, kind, judicious and good man who made a number of tough decisions over the years and stood by then.
It is an affront to a distinguished record in the bar, on the bench, in the community and in his church that Hannah’s retirement drew no formal acknowledgment from his colleagues. It was an affront to his family that the Supreme Court, before the family could be heard from, issued a terse news release on his death, absent any of the fulsome words accorded the same day to a man who served briefly by appointment as chief justice a couple of decades ago. The faint praise issued belatedly today by three adversarial colleagues (Jo Hart’s odd statement particularly) won’t paper over the personal divide that existed and will continue to exist on the state’s highest court. Rhonda Wood’s injudicious, self-serving public statement yesterday should be recognized for what it is, the sort of politics that some are attempting to ascribe to Courtney Goodson.
I should add that this inside baseball won’t reach many in the broad electorate. But it reaches members of the bar, who are instrumental in judicial elections, which are coming March 1. A lawyer whose own judiciousness I respect commented to me this morning:
I am shocked that the court will not enter an order honoring Justice Hannah and that Rhonda Wood publicly confirms there is a split on the court over whether to do one. That court may be the worst in America.
Any subsequent action by the court is, of course, too late to correct that impression.
UPDATE: Shortly after noon, a statement arrived from the final justice, Rhonda Wood.
I was sad to learn of the passing of Chief Hannah yesterday. I had the opportunity to work with him for nine years on the bench. We predominately worked together on juvenile justice reform. Justice Hannah was a champion of juvenile court issues and many of the protections in place today were derived from his leadership. He was nationally recognized for his leadership and whenever I attended a national conference, someone would invariably approach me and say “You are from Arkansas, you get to work with Chief Hannah.”
My condolences go out to his family. Anyone who knew Jim, also knew family was everything to him.