As one of the lawyers defending the University of Arkansas against a wrongful dismissal lawsuit by former basketball coach Nolan Richardson, Jo Ann Maxey, named one of the state's top labor and employment lawyers, saw more cameras and microphones than she'd seen before. "Most employees don't get that kind of press," she said. The witnesses she questioned were a more high-profile bunch than usual, too - Razorback football coach Houston Nutt, track coach John McDonnell, "the voice of the Razorbacks" Paul Eells, and others. "It was an interesting case," she said, not overstating. "There are very few people who don't have a real strong opinion about it." The most important opinion, that of the trial judge, William R. Wilson Jr., was in favor of Maxey's client.
Even her 20-year-old daughter, Emily, came to the federal courthouse to watch some of the trial, the first time she'd seen her mother try a case. The younger Maxey, a college student most of the year, is working part-time at Maxey's law firm this summer. But she won't be a lawyer, her mother said.
Maxey, 49, was born in Japan, the daughter of a Marine, and lived there four years before coming to the U.S., where she grew up all over the country, as children of the military do. She graduated from the University of Missouri in Columbia with a political science degree, got married, moved to Little Rock and earned a law degree at the UALR Law School. The idea of attending law school had been in her mind while she was an undergraduate.
She worked for the nonprofit Arkansas Community Foundation for a couple of years, and while there met Peter Miller, a lawyer who was then a partner in a firm that preceded the one in which Maxey is now a partner - Kaplan, Brewer, Maxey and Haralson. Miller and the Foundation were associated in the restoration of the Disfarmer photographs, a remarkable collection of portraits made by an eccentric commercial photographer at Heber Springs in the 1930s and '40s. Miller had acquired the negatives in the mid-'70s, while publishing a weekly newspaper at Heber Springs.
Maxey joined the law firm as a clerk for Miller, who later left to head his own firm. She began moving up. Her first big case was that of Debbie Williams v. City of Little Rock. Williams said that Traffic Judge William R. Butler had violated her First Amendment rights by firing her after she talked to police during an investigation of alleged ticket-fixing. Maxey and Philip E. Kaplan won a $100,000 jury verdict for Williams in 1983. By today's standards, it's not a lot, but at the time, it was the biggest award ever made in a First Amendment case in Arkansas. But she had to wait eight years for payment, as the case bounced back and forth between federal district court at Little Rock and the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals at St. Louis.
"In the early years, we were primarily a plaintiffs' civil rights firm," Maxey said. "We did employment discrimination cases, First Amendment cases. But I also did some divorces, too. In a small firm, everybody does a variety of things."
And because of Kaplan, she was exposed to some of the biggest cases in Arkansas. "When I joined the firm, Phil was working on the Creation Science case. He worked on the Little Rock school consolidation case. As a law clerk, I worked with him on the lawsuit over the constitutionality of the state prisons. I later assisted him on Death Row cases. Being a partner with him has given all of us an opportunity to work on a variety of cases. I think he's the best lawyer in the state."
She's been trying cases for the Kaplan firm for 20 years now. The practice has changed in a significant way. "We still do some plaintiffs' cases. But for the last 10 years, we've been mostly on the employers' side. It was just a gradual process." Was the change made because the employers' side pays better? "The compensation is more predictable," Maxey said. "Working for an employer, you get paid along the way. You don't have to wait until you've won the case. You don't get the big recoveries, but you don't walk away empty-handed, either."
In the Richardson case, neither side asked for a jury trial, allowing Wilson to pick the winner. Some observers were surprised that the UA didn't ask for a jury, considering how many white people Richardson had angered with remarks about "redneck SOBs."
"Plaintiffs are usually the ones who ask for a jury trial," Maxey said. "It would be out of the ordinary for the defense to ask for a jury trial. You never know what a jury will do. A judge may be a little more predictable."