Retired Chief Justice Jim Hannah dies | Arkansas Blog

Retired Chief Justice Jim Hannah dies

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JIM HANNAH
  • JIM HANNAH
Jim Hannah, a veteran judge who retired Sept. 1 as chief justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court because of poor health, died this morning. He was 71.

The family issued this statement:

With a heavy heart, we announce that this morning our beloved Jim left this earth. Jim was a loving husband, father, and grandfather. Known best for his work as a lawyer, judge, and Supreme Court Justice, Jim’s greatest love and joy were his family and friends. He was the rock upon which our family was built. His humor, wit, and wisdom entertained and guided us through the twists and turns of life. Jim led and inspired us all to do a little more and give a little more back to family, friends and community. We mourn his passing while finding comfort in knowing that he will no longer suffer.


Powell Funeral Home in his hometown of Searcy will be handling funeral arrangements.

Hannah served on the Supreme Court 14 years, the last 10 as chief justice. He had been a trial judge previously.

He was a courtly and soft-spoken man whose final time on the court was marked by internal issues. New court members usurped some of the administrative powers that had been reserved to the chief justice by custom, such as choice of key court personnel. He also joined Justice Paul Danielson in objecting to a majority decision to make a separate case of whether an appointed justice should continue to sit on the same-sex marriage lawsuit after a new judge in that seat took office. Danielson and Hannah believed the special justice should continue.

Hannah's letter of recusal from the case said the new case was made up out of "whole cloth" for delaying purposes.

Beyond that filing, Hannah never discussed the issue publicly or any of the other issues that roiled the court. The divisions broke into the open after reporting about objections to Hannah's choice to take the office of court clerk when retirement of Les Steen opened the job. Justices Jo Hart, Karen Baker and Courtney Goodson formed a bloc that challenged Hannah's choice. Goodson was already planning then for the race she is now making for chief justice against Judge Dan Kemp.

New Justice Rhonda Wood became aligned with that group on the marriage case. She wanted to hear it and the separate case to which Hannah objected resulted in Wood getting to sit on the case. The Supreme Court never decided it. Instead, it dismissed the appeal after the U.S. Supreme Court declared marriage bans unconstitutional.

Before ill health beset him, Hannah had looked at seeking another term on the Supreme Court after this year, though he would have turned 70 before being elected to a new term to begin in January 2017. That circumstance would have prevented him from taking retirement benefits under existing law that allows judges to continue to be elected after turning 70, but to give up future retirement benefits if they do. A legal challenge to that effective age limit recently was turned back in a circuit court test.

Hannah held both his undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Arkansas. He'd been a city attorney for a number of cities in White County, including Searcy from 1969 to 1978. He was a deputy prosecutor in Woodruff County and city judge in Kensett and Rosebud. He became a White County juvenile judge in 1976 and then served from 1979 to 1999 as a chancery and probate judge. Before taking the bench, he worked in private practice for the firm of Lightle, Tedder, Hannah and Beebe.

He'd held leadership roles in a number of bar and judicial organizations. He served as secretary of the state pardons and paroles board in the 1970s and had been active in Little League sports and the First Presbyterian Church, where he was a deacon.

The family provided this biography.
It said in part:

In his annual address to the Bar and to new lawyers, Justice Hannah never failed to underscore the critical importance of access to our civil courts for all Arkansans regardless of their ability to pay. He also routinely praised judicial independence and was convinced that an impartial and unbiased judiciary was the cornerstone for America's greatness.

The Supreme Court issued this release early in the day on Hannah's death:

On January 14, 2016, Honorable James R. Hannah, who served as a justice on the Arkansas Supreme Court from 2001 until 2015, passed away. From 2005 until 2015, Hannah served as the Chief Justice of the court. At the time of his retirement, Chief Justice Hannah had served the State of Arkansas for thirty-seven years as a city-court judge, juvenile judge, chancery judge, justice and chief justice. In addition, during his tenure Chief Justice Hannah was called upon to serve as chair of the Board of Directors of the National Center for StateCourts and as president of the Conference of Chief Justices.

On this sad occasion, the Arkansas Supreme Court wishes to extend its deepest sympathy and condolences to Chief Justice Hannah’s wife, Pat, and the entire Hannah family.

A statement from his old friend, former Gov. Mike Beebe:

"Jim Hannah and I were friends from my earliest days in Searcy until his passing. He was always well-respected when we appeared as law partners in courts around Arkansas and he brought dignity and fairness to every bench he sat upon as a judge. As Chief Justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court, Jim used his keen mind and quiet, thoughtful voice to keep our beloved state on stable legal ground. I will personally miss him as a close friend.

A statement from Gov. Asa Hutchinson:

The State of Arkansas will miss Chief Justice Hannah in more ways than one. Not only will his record of service to the state as Chief Justice be long remembered, but it was clear to all that knew him that he conducted his life with honor and dignity. From a personal standpoint, Justice Hannah swore me in as Governor – a memory my family and I will always treasure. Today we mourn his loss and pray for his family in this difficult time.”

As it happened, the Supreme Court before the announcement of Hannah's death issued a statement on the passing of Bradley Jesson, who served as chief justice for two years by appointment.

On January 11, 2016, Honorable Bradley Dean Jesson, who served as Chief Justice from 1995 to 1996, died at the age of 83. After serving as Chief Justice, in 2004, we appointed Jesson to serve as a special master in Lake View Sch. Dist. No. 25 of Phillips Cty. v.Huckabee, 356 Ark. 1, 144 S.W.3d 741 (2004) (per curiam), the landmark case involving our public education system. Chief Justice Jesson spent more than fifty years in public service.

On this sad occasion, the Arkansas Supreme Court joins the citizens of this State in saluting Chief Justice Jesson for a life well lived, a life of service and pursuit of justice. The court extends its deepest condolences to his wife, Mary Ellen, and the rest of his family.

Perhaps a similar salute to Hannah will follow in a subsequent court per curiam order. But probably not. Two different sources tell me that a recent attempt to circulate a per curiam order to pay tribute to Hannah — a fairly routine happening at the court — was resisted by a majority of the justices. Feelings linger from the marriage case, apparently. No per curiam was issued after his retirement, an honor accorded recently to retiring Justice Donald Corbin and many other judges as a matter of routine.

UPDATE: Two members of the Supreme Court, Chief Justice Howard Brill and Justice Paul Danielson, issued much more laudatory individual statements later in the day.

Here's Justice Danielson's.
Danielson called him a good man, a fine judge and someone who had an extraordinary legal career. His contributions to the state and legal system were "immeasurable."

Here's Chief Justice Brill's Statement.
Hannah led the judiciary with "grace and civility," Brill said.

About 6 p.m. Justice Robin Wynne distributed a statement:

"I was so saddened to learn of the death of Chief Justice Jim Hannah. I was privileged to serve with him on the Supreme Court. I certainly appreciate the dedication he gave to the Supreme Court and to the Arkansas Judicial system over the years. He was a dedicated jurist and his counsel will be missed. We should all appreciate his public service. “


Former Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, in a statement praising Hannah, noted how curious it would be if the Supreme Court did not issue an order in praise of him.

Chief Justice Hannah was a man of honor with a commitment to service and the judiciary. He led the court through many challenges. His legacy deserves to be honored. I hope the current court can find a way to put politics aside and enter a per curiam honoring his service before the funeral. They have never before declined to do so for a former chief, and Jim Hannah earned that simple recognition.

Courtney Goodson put politics aside? That will be the day.


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