Editor’s note: Story updated with changes and additions throughout, to include a statement from Gov. Asa Hutchinson.
Fort Smith attorney Brad Jesson, who served as Chief Justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court and was one of the early political supporters of an unknown Dale Bumpers, has passed away. He was 83, and would have been 84 on Jan. 26.
In addition to his appointment by Gov. Jim Guy Tucker to serve as chief justice during 1995-1996, Jesson was appointed a special master – along with attorney David Newbern of Little Rock – to review the state’s controversial and much politicized Lake View case. The case was about school reform, which was about how money had to be spent within the state’s education system. Jesson and Newbern served as special masters between 2003 and 2007.
The Arkansas Supreme Court used the report of Jesson and Newbern to close the case, and also to warn state officials to be vigilant in ensuring equitable school funding.
Other public posts held by Jesson include:
• University of Arkansas Trustee, 1974-1985; board chairman, 2002-2004;
• legislative secretary to Gov. Dale Bumpers, 1971-1972; and
• city attorney of Fort Smith, 1964-1965.
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) provided this statement to Talk Business & Politics about the passing of Jesson.
“I am saddened by the news of the passing of Brad Jesson. He was a first rate lawyer and Judge, but even more so, he was a gentlemen in the courtroom and in all aspects of his life. Certainly, he will be missed by all those who worked with him and his service for the state of Arkansas will long be remembered. Our prayers and best wishes are with his family.”
Jesson and his wife Mary Ellen were married 63 years on Dec. 27. They had four daughters, Lucinda (Cindy), Jennifer, Deana and Mary Beth.
U.S. District Judge Tim Brooks (Western District of Arkansas), who is married to Mary Beth, said Brad was “incredibly humble” about his years of service. When asked what Jesson would have been most proud of, Brooks said: “He was such a humble person that if you asked him that question directly, he would have dodged any answer about himself … and probably would have reflected it back on family. … He was just incredibly proud of his daughter’s accomplishments. They’ve all done exceedingly well in their own rights.”
Brooks said Jesson is probably best known for his view of and about the legal profession.
“His view was really the old school with civility, collegiality … and those were more important to him in the practice of law than just about anything,” Brooks said.
Jesson earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Tulsa in 1954. He then served three years – 1956-1959 – in the U.S. Air Force, with much of that time spent in Japan. He would then earn a juris doctorate from the University of Arkansas School of Law in 1959. He served as a law clerk for U.S. District Judge John E. Miller between 1959-1961. For more than 50 years, he was affiliated with the Fort Smith-based law firm of Hardin, Jesson & Terry, where he focused on oil and gas issues, railroad litigation and complex commercial litigation.
Rex Terry, an attorney with Jesson for more than 30 years, said Jesson was the complete package.
“He was a great listener, a great counselor, a great friend. He was just a superb lawyer. Brad was one of those guys who had a wonderful memory for people and for facts,” Terry said Monday. “And he was an excellent writer and a real scholar of the law. … He had all the qualities that every lawyer wants.”
Continuing, Terry said: “Brad had the ability to be courteous to all, even in sharply contested litigation. He was very much a role model in that respect. He had an active and inquiring mind, and always had an excellent knowledge of the law, and the ability to analyze cases. I never met anyone who did not have the highest regard and respect for him. He was a Fellow in the American College of Trial Lawyers. He was a faithful member of First Methodist Church. He and Mary Ellen were wonderful parents, and have four very accomplished daughters as proof of that.”
Terry said he and Jesson were best friends, even though Terry is active in Republican politics and Jesson was an icon in the Democratic Party of Arkansas.
“Brad was in on the ground floor of both of Bumpers’ campaigns (governor and U.S. Senate). He was there from the start. … You know, Brad was one of my very closest friends, yet we were on opposite sides politically. But that was never a problem,” Terry said.
A funeral service is expected to be held Friday.