Jus­tice Jim Han­nah and his jour­ney through Arkansas

The Saline Courier - - OPINION -

Jus­tice Jim Han­nah served nearly 15 years on the Arkansas Supreme Court and earned rare bi­par­ti­san praise for his wis­dom and sense of dig­nity in what is so of­ten an undig­ni­fied po­lit­i­cal world.

In a pe­riod of sharp de­bates and bit­ter par­ti­san pol­i­tics across the state, Han­nah be­came a re­spected fig­ure for his low-key ap­proach and sense of fair­ness.

James Robert Han­nah was born in Long Beach, Cal­i­for­nia, in the midst of World War II in 1944. His fa­ther, a Mis­souri na­tive and busi­ness­man, was serv­ing in the navy, and his wife had ac­com­pa­nied him to Cal­i­for­nia. Af­ter the war, the young fam­ily re­turned to Ozark, a small com­mu­nity in South­west Mis­souri.

The fam­ily moved to Harrison around 1960 where the fam­ily be­gan op­er­at­ing a bot­tling com­pany. Han­nah grad­u­ated from the lo­cal high school two years later.

He at­tended col­lege at the Uni­ver­sity of Arkansas, where he also re­ceived his law de­gree. Af­ter law school, Han­nah set­tled down in Searcy and opened his own law firm. He even­tu­ally en­tered into a part­ner­ship with sev­eral prom­i­nent lo­cal at­tor­neys, in­clud­ing Mike Beebe, the fu­ture gover­nor.

By 1969, he had earned enough re­spect across Searcy for city of­fi­cials to name him as city at­tor­ney. Sev­eral other nearby com­mu­ni­ties also picked up his ser­vices as their city at­tor­ney. Gov. Dale Bumpers ap­pointed him to serve on the Board of Par­dons and Paroles by the early 1970s, a term that was ex­tended by Gov. David Pryor sev­eral years later.

Han­nah was ap­pointed as a judge for the ju­ve­nile courts in White County in 1976. He won his first ju­di­cial elec­tion in 1978 for a district that in­cluded White, Prairie, and Lonoke coun­ties. Over the next twenty years, he served in a va­ri­ety of le­gal ca­pac­i­ties.

He served as a trial judge and also as a chancery judge, a type of cir­cuit judge fo­cus­ing on con­tract matters,

and in Han­nah’s case, mostly wills and pro­bates. The chancery sys­tem in Arkansas was re­formed into the mod­ern sys­tem of district and ap­peals courts plus the Supreme Court some time later.

In 2000, Han­nah ran for the Arkansas Supreme Court and won a po­si­tion as as­so­ciate jus­tice. He was one of seven jus­tices on the state’s high­est court. In 2004, with Chief Jus­tice Betty Dickey serv­ing out the re­main­der of re­tir­ing Chief Jus­tice Wil­liam H. Arnold, Han­nah de­cided to move up.

He ran for the po­si­tion of chief jus­tice and won eas­ily. With the new cen­tury, the ju­di­ciary was chang­ing quickly, and Han­nah was ea­ger to keep up with the times. He moved to make the court’s elec­tronic records of its pro­ceed­ings the of­fi­cial records rather than writ­ten records, and brought cam­eras into the Supreme Court to broad­cast hear­ings.

He gained re­spect from judges across the na­tion and was named pres­i­dent of the Con­fer­ence of Chief Jus­tices in 2014, an as­so­ci­a­tion of the chief jus­tices of each state supreme court in the na­tion.

Pres­i­dent Barack Obama ap­pointed him to chair the board of di­rec­tors of the State Jus­tice In­sti­tute while John Roberts, Chief Jus­tice of the United States Supreme Court, ap­pointed him to chair the Ju­di­cial Con­fer­ence Com­mit­tee on Statefed­eral Ju­ris­dic­tion.

As the po­lit­i­cal cli­mate of Arkansas shifted, in­creas­ing num­bers of di­vi­sions ap­peared among the jus­tices, not only on im­por­tant case rul­ings but also how the Supreme Court would be run. Though all Arkansas judges are elected on a non-par­ti­san ba­sis, party al­le­giances and bi­ases be­came ap­par­ent.

De­spite the in­fight­ing on the court that be­came in­creas­ingly re­ported in news­pa­pers, Han­nah re­fused to make these is­sues pub­lic. He re­spected the right of jus­tices to con­fer and even ar­gue among them­selves to pre­serve the dig­nity of the court.

By 2015, Han­nah was grow­ing in­creas­ingly ill. He was con­sid­er­ing run­ning for an­other term in 2016, but it was not to be.

His health forced him to re­tire in Septem­ber 2015, and he died four months later.


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