Ladies Of The Court: Meet The Three Female Justices Of The Arkansas Supreme Court

by Roby Brock ([email protected]) 1,403 views 

Editor’s note:  This story appears in the latest magazine issue of Talk Business Arkansas, which you can read online at this link.  A video interview with former Justice Annabelle Imber Tuck appears at the end of this article.

Annabelle Clinton Imber was the first woman elected to the Arkansas Supreme Court, but the groundbreaker pursued the job based simply on the fact that she loved to read and research.

“I loved writing and I loved reading, so I thought I’d give it a shot,” said the retired justice, who has remarried and now goes by Annabelle Imber Tuck.  “It wasn’t about really being the first.  I just thought this would be my ideal job.”

It helped that the Heber Springs native had served in leadership roles in the Arkansas Bar Association, was a sitting judge in Pulaski and Perry counties, and was so well-respected that she literally cleared the field.  She was elected to her historic post in 1997 without opposition.

While Tuck was the first woman elected, there were other women who had served on the court before her due to gubernatorial appointments.  Elsijane Roy was appointed to a vacant post by Gov. David Pryor.  Andree Roaf filled out a term during the Gov. Jim Guy Tucker administration.

After Tuck’s election, Betty Dickey was appointed by Gov. Mike Huckabee and Gov. Mike Beebe appointed Elana Wills to fill a vacancy during his first term.

Just years before Tuck’s election, she had witnessed a brutal Supreme Court campaign between Judith Rogers and Robert Brown, who would win in a close and competitive race.  For the mid-1990’s, the prospects for women in judicial politics was surprisingly behind major gains made at the legislative and executive branch levels.

However, Tuck was the first to be elected and she inspired a generation of women and paved the way for more gains for women on the state’s highest court.

Tuck’s groundbreaking election to the Supreme Court is hard to fathom in this day and age of equal opportunity.

It was just 16 years ago that she won the seat.

When you talk to older attorneys and judges in the state, many can recall their law school days when there were less than a handful of females studying for law degrees.  Men comprising more than 90 percent of classes was commonplace pre-1975.

In 2012, the most recent statistics available, Arkansas’ two law schools boast a gender make-up of roughly 55 percent male and 45 percent female.  During the last decade, there have been instances at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock Law School when women have outpaced men in enrollment.

Today, the Arkansas Supreme Court has three female justices on the bench and with looming retirements, open seats and upcoming elections, the high bench could see an even greater transformation in the next two election cycles.

Justices Karen Baker, Courtney Goodson, and Josephine Hart come from extremely different backgrounds, yet they all knew at very early ages that pursuit of legal careers were their calling.

Baker, who will run for re-election in 2014 after winning a vacated seat in 2010, was in early high school when she determined her path.

Her father had a small, independent construction company in Clinton, Arkansas.  Involved in a legal dispute with a utility company, Baker said her family nearly lost everything in the lawsuit, which she described as a “major crisis.”

The attorney representing her father allowed her to hang out and watch him handle matters, leaving the impressionable teen with a hunger for the law.

“I was just really impressed with the ability to help people in that situation and I knew I wanted to pursue that,” Baker said.

After graduating from Arkansas Tech University in Russellville, Baker attended law school at night at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock during the mid-80’s.

“When I was in law school, the number of women was roughly equal to men, but not as many of the women finished,” she recalls. “There were a lot of different pressures, family pressures, that kept women from finishing.”

Despite that influx of women at the law school, it was apparent that the world was still adapting to the times.

Baker said the old bar center (near Little Rock’s Doubletree Hotel) didn’t have a women’s bathroom on the students’ floor.  There was one on the top floor where secretaries worked during the day and one on the floor below which housed law school administrators.

Baker passed the bar at age 23 and hung her shingle out in her hometown of Clinton.

She was well-known locally and recalls looking younger than 23 when she started practicing law.

“I’m sure everybody just wanted to pat me on the head and say, ‘Isn’t that cute? She thinks she’s a lawyer.’”

Her eight-year private practice included everything.  Public defender work trained her extensively for trial court experience, particularly in criminal law and child protection cases. She handled “whatever walked in the door that day,” which involved domestic relations; civil cases; wills, estates and trusts; and property disputes.

Then-Gov. Jim Guy Tucker appointed her to a juvenile judgeship to finish out a term before she ran for – and won – a newly created circuit/chancery judgeship in the 20th district.  Eventually, an opening presented itself on the Court of Appeals and Baker jumped at the chance to serve at the next level.

“I ran because I thought that it was very important that we have appellate judges who have been in the courtroom.,” she said. “It’s difficult to know from a cold record what it’s like in the courtroom.”

Baker said her 10 years on the Court of Appeals was a major departure from her trial bench work.

“Nobody calls, nobody comes by,” she laughs. “It took me a while to figure out where my phone was because it never rang. You really are removed from the interaction with the attorneys that you had before.  And you never see the litigants at all.”

She enjoyed the higher court, especially the research, and when Justice Tuck left the Supreme Court, Baker made the run for her open seat.

How influential was Tuck on Baker?  Tuck swore Baker into her Court of Appeals and Supreme Court seats.

Like Baker, Justice Jospehine Hart knew at an early age she wanted to pursue a career in law and it also involved a family legal matter.

When Hart was about 10 years old, her family’s farmland was taken by eminent domain so that engineers could build what is now Lake Dardanelle.

Hart’s family kept their hill property, but lost the fertile farmland, in essence taking away their livelihood.

“I thought it was pretty egregious.  They took our land and paid us very little for it… they took our entire lives,” Hart said.

The experience scarred the pre-teen to the point that she knew she wanted to rely on her brain, not her back, to make a living.

“I thought you better get some training here, because you might be left with nothing to work with,” said Hart.

Like Baker, Hart also attended Arkansas Tech University earning majors in history and political science and a minor in education (to appease her mother).  She then took a commission in the U.S. Army active duty and reserves, which included a stint as a top-secret control officer in Japan.

She used money from the G.I. bill to gain her law degree from the University of Arkansas School of Law in the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s and got out of law school debt-free. During her last year of law school, she was on the law review.

“When I started to law school, there were two other women and 90-something men,” Hart recalls. “One of those women stayed one year, the other one graduated but never passed the bar.  It was unusual for a woman to go to law school and it was really rare to be academically competitive and write on the law review.”

There were some part-time female students, she notes.

Hart planned to return to the Army and the JAG corps, but the law school dean and her professors encouraged her to serve as a law clerk at the Arkansas Supreme Court.  With a bit of reluctance, Hart took a clerk’s job serving under the tutelage of Justice Frank Holt.

“They [clerks] were paid very little because it was considered an honor to be a law clerk, and it was.  It was a real training ground for you,” Hart said.

During that Supreme Court tenure, Hart would work with Holt on 10 cases a week, 10-12 hours a day, 6 days a week.

She eventually practiced private law in Batesville and served in the JAG corps, where she was the only female with over 100 male military lawyers.

“I don’t think I ever had a problem being discriminated against,” Hart said.  “What I found out was that if you did your work and you did it well, most people are glad to see you.”

Hart left private practice to win a seat in 1999 on the Court of Appeals, where she served for a little more than decade.  In 2012, she won her Supreme Court race.

While Hart is a generation older than Baker, Justice Courtney Goodson is a generation younger than Baker. She and her peers have benefited from the trails blazed by Justices Tuck, Hart and Baker.

Goodson graduated from the University of Arkansas School of Law with high honors in 1997.

After earning her law degree, Goodson trained at the Arkansas Court of Appeals clerking with Judges Frank Arey and Terry Crabtree on the appellate court.  When Crabtree unexpectedly died, Goodson decided to run for his seat.

“I liked the thoughtful deliberation, the study and the research.  I knew I was suited for the appellate court,” she said. “When I decided to run, I thought, ‘I’ve done that work for eight-and-a-half years. I know exactly how to do that job.  I can hit the ground running.’”

She has.

After winning the appellate court seat in 2008, she took a shot – and won – her current seat on the Arkansas Supreme Court in 2010.

Her office has a woman’s touch.  The well-appointed, well-defined sitting area in her workspace is conducive to conversation, exactly the environment Goodson hoped to create.

“One of the most valuable things that happens at the Supreme Court is the collaboration of ideas, asking tough questions of one another.  I want my office to reflect a space where we can do that,” she said.

In part because of the generation from which she comes, Goodson sees her rise to the Supreme Court through the prism of any other working woman or working mother who climbs the ladder of professional success.

“Not to diminish the fact that we have three women on the Supreme Court, I think of myself as a working mother, we are representative of a new face for the court,” Goodson said. “I think I am merely an example of another working mother in Arkansas. It’s just that my job gets a little more recognition than others.”

She cites as her inspiration her grandmothers, both of whom worked while their husbands fought in WWII.  One of her grandmothers worked in a factory, while the other ran a family farm in Boone County.

“Women, just as men, when given the opportunities they have now, it is our responsibility and our duty and an expectation to step up and take the challenge,” she said.

Like Justices Baker and Hart, Goodson also found her calling to the law at an early age.  It’s a story she told often on the campaign trail.

When she was six years old, she was adopted and that made a tremendous impact in shaping her future.

“A good judge gave me a new last name, a complete family, and a brand new beginning.  For a six-year old little girl that was really powerful,” she said.  “I knew that one day I wanted to be a part of that legal system that gave me a fresh start.  For me, it was a recognition that I could be a problem solver for other people one day.”

So what has changed with the advancements of women on the Supreme Court?

Chief Justice Jim Hannah said while every judicial decision is ultimately grounded in sound legal basis, diversity helps the court produce better results.

“We’re a product of who we are, how we grew up in the environs that we grew up in, and they do bring a different perspective which I think is good,” Hannah said. “It’s part of the whole process of trying to get the best answer possible from this court that we’re called upon to make.  The more viewpoints that you have, in discussing them in conference, I do think we come up with best decision possible.”

Hannah was in law school in the late ‘60’s slightly ahead of Justice Hart and he remembers only three females being enrolled.  When he was first elected as Chief Justice in 2004, he quickly learned that nationally there were 29 females serving as chief justices.

“You see it in the law firms, they’re recruiting females to the law firm.  It’s been a big, healthy change to the workforce as a whole,“ Hannah said.

Goodson sees the gender diversity on the court as healthy, too.

“We’re not robots here at the Supreme Court. Our humanity does play into decisions we make because we are relying on our judgment,” she said. “The law is not completely black and white. There is a lot of gray.  That’s when you rely on a discernment of spirit to find the right answer.  That’s what makes our conference room with seven people such a rich experience. Those different perspectives keep us sharp and true and accountable to one another and ourselves when it comes to a gray area.”

Baker agrees.

“The law is the law and it doesn’t necessarily have a male or female perspective,” Baker said. “At the same time, all of us bring our backgrounds with us to the conference room when we discuss those cases. We all have varied experience, which is good because if we all had the same perspective, there would be no need to have seven of us.”

Hart, however, is a little more measured in her response.

“I think that women have a lot of opportunities in the law.  I think it’s like many other professions,” said Hart.  “The law is a jealous mistress.  If you’re going to be in the law, you need to be in the law.  I think a lot of the young women want it all. They want to have the family, the children, the law practice and I think that’s a tough road for them to hoe.”

Justice Tuck said the year she joined the court as its first elected female member, there were other new justices and that all of that contributed to changing dynamics. She thinks her female perspective and family law background brought a new viewpoint to deliberations.

“I brought a perspective to it that I don’t think they had,” Tuck said. “All of us bring something very different to the table.”

She notes that there have also been big advances for women at the lower court levels, too.

As for the future and the prospect that women could soon make up a majority on the Arkansas Supreme Court, well, Tuck is enthusiastic about that scenario.

“I think it’s absolutely wonderful and I was very concerned – I shouldn’t have been – but I was concerned that I would be there and nobody else would run,” Tuck says.  “I think if we get a majority, that will be a new day.”