Retired Supreme Court Justice Donald Corbin died last night after a period of illness. He was 78. He served 24 years on the court before retiring at the end of 2014.
The Encyclopedia of Arkansas has a full recitation of Corbin’s career as lawyer, legislator from Lewisville and appellate court judge. He was a member of the first elected Court of Appeals in Arkansas, A Democrat, he styled himself as a country boy legislator in his early political days, looking after rural interests. He once blocked an appropriation to convert AETN to color broadcasting because rural areas were getting no AETN signal while Central Arkansas stood to receive the newfangled color.
He was elected to the Supreme Court in 1990 and wrote key opinions over the years, including one striking down the effort to limit terms of members of Congress from Arkansas. He wrote for the majority in the opinion finding unconstitutional an effort to impose voter ID rules as an impediment to voting.
He was known for plain speaking.
When Lake View School District No. 25 v. Huckabee, which challenged the constitutionality of the state’s operation and funding of the public schools, reached the Supreme Court for the fourth time in January 2004, Corbin rebuked legislators during the court’s oral arguments for failing to take steps to guarantee that all the state’s schools were providing a suitable and efficient education. “I don’t want to let anybody off the hook,” he told the government’s lawyers. “I want to stick the hook in real deep, so they’ll know at least one judge won’t put up with this again.” Legislators grumbled about the remark, and the speaker of the House of Representatives said the threat was out of line. But the legislature subsequently raised taxes, consolidated smaller schools, and passed a law requiring the funding of public education at an “adequate” level every year before the state distributed tax funds to the rest of the government.
In recent years, his record was notable for his participation in four landmark cases on the legal rights of gay people.
In all four, Corbin insisted that the equal-protection, due-process, and privacy provisions of the federal and state constitutions barred the state from discriminating against homosexual men and women. In 2002, the Supreme Court unanimously struck down the state’s sodomy law, which made homosexual activity a crime. As a legislator in 1977, Corbin had voted for the law, which required a $1,000 fine and up to a year in prison for committing a homosexual act. However, Corbin joined the unanimous decision (Jegley v. Picado, 2002) invalidating the law as a violation of privacy rights guaranteed by the state constitution. A year later, in Lawrence v. Texas, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated such laws nationwide.
In 2006, Corbin wrote the Supreme Court’s ruling (Howard v. State) holding that the state’s Child Welfare Agency Review Board could not prevent same-sex couples from serving as foster parents. Two years later, an initiated act adopted by the state’s voters barred homosexual couples from serving as foster parents or from adopting children. The Arkansas Supreme Court, in Department of Human Services v. Cole (2011), also struck that law down, unanimously, on the same grounds, saying that such regulation did not reflect a correlation between the sexual orientation of parents and the safety of children.
The Pulaski County Circuit Court struck down a constitutional amendment outlawing same-sex unions, a case that reached the state Supreme Court in 2014. The court expedited hearing the case and decided, six to one, to affirm the lower court, but the court never handed down an opinion. Corbin sought to have the ruling released before leaving the bench (he was retiring at the end of the year) and offered his own opinion addressing the federal and state constitutional issues. Corbin retired effective December 31, 2014, and the decision was not handed down. With two new justices, the court delayed rendering a decision for another six months, until the U.S. Supreme Court struck down all such state laws in Obergefell v. Hodges, delivered on June 26, 2015. The Arkansas court then dismissed the Arkansas appeal as moot.
Corbin spoke colorfully of his life and legal work — and revealed some information about the tortured deliberations of the court in the same-sex marriage case — in an interview with Times columnist Ernest Dumas, which is part of an archive of interviews with past justices.
No details yet on services. He’ll be missed by a large family who were gathered around him at the end, as well as friends and acquaintances who appreciated his story-telling, good humor and plain speaking, including in legal opinions. His widow, Dorcy Kyle Corbin, has posted a fond remembrance on Facebook.