Former Arkansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Hannah dies at 71 (Updated)

by Steve Brawner ([email protected]) 494 views 

Former Arkansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Jim Hannah

Editor’s note: Story is updated with a statement from the Jim Hannah family, a formal bio from the family, and statements from Arkansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Howard Brill and Supreme Court Justice Paul Danielson.


Former Arkansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Jim Hannah, 71, who resigned from the Court Aug. 31 citing health reasons, died Thursday, three days after the death of former Chief Justice Bradley Jesson.

Hannah served as chief justice from 2005 until 2015 and served as a justice starting in 2001.

During his 37 years on the bench, he also served as a city-court judge, juvenile judge and chancery judge. He served as president of the Conference of Chief Justices and, in 2014, became chair of the board of directors of the National Center for State Courts. He was appointed by U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court Judicial Conference Committee on Federal-State Jurisdiction. President Obama appointed him to chair the State Justice Institute.

Hannah’s death was announced by a press release from the Arkansas Supreme Court.

He had announced last Aug. 13 that he was resigning, saying in a statement, “In recent weeks I have been challenged by a significant health issue. Having the utmost respect for my job as Chief Justice and the business of the court, I have made a decision to tender my resignation effective at the end of August 31, 2015 to focus full-time on addressing my immediate health condition. There is no greater honor that a person can receive than to have another person place his or her trust and confidence in you.”

The Jim Hannah 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.” (A formal bio from the family can be found at the end of this story.)

Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who appointed Chief Justice Howard Brill in Hannah’s place, said in a statement, “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.”

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe said Hannah will be missed as a judge and friend.

“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.”

Eddie Walker, a Fort Smith attorney and president of the Arkansas Bar Association, said in an interview, “I felt like that he was very sensitive to making sure that he was aware of the facts of the case, and he was very fair-minded, and he had an outstanding judicial temperament.”

He said Hannah was “calm and respectful to the attorneys. There are some judges who seem to forget that they were practicing lawyers before they were judges, and I do not put him in that category of people. I thought that he was always very courteous to lawyers and very courteous to his colleagues.”

He said Hannah as a person was “very warm, very congenial, thoughtful of others, and civility was a very high principle in his life.”

On Jan. 11, Bradley Jesson, who served as chief justice from 1995 to 1996, died at age 83. Jesson also served as a special master in the the Lake View school funding case in 2014.

“Justice Jesson was the same type of chief justice that Justice Hannah was, so with both of them passing in such close proximity, that’s a tremendous blow to the legal profession as well as the community because both of them were very committed to community service in addition to the legal profession,” Walker said.

In a statement today, Lt. Governor Tim Griffin said, “Chief Justice Hannah will be remembered for his kindness and commitment to service. His family is in my thoughts and prayers as we mourn his passing. I will always cherish the memory captured in one of my favorite photographs of Chief Justice Hannah and my family as John and Mary Katherine giggled openly at the novelty of my swearing-in ceremony, just one year ago.”

Arkansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Howard Brill issued this statement: “I first met Chief Justice Hannah when he came to the law school in Fayetteville and spoke to the incoming students. He sought to instill in them his passion for professionalism and civility. Chief Justice Hannah reminded them that an integral part of the calling of an attorney is to serve others.

“Chief Justice Hannah led the Arkansas Judiciary with grace and civility. My staff, who served Chief Justice Hannah for many years, and I extend our condolences to his wife Pat, his family, and friends.”

Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Paul Danielson also issued this statement: “If anyone was meant to be a judge, it was Jim Hannah. He was kind, patient, and gentle, with an unassailable sense of right and wrong. From his days as a juvenile judge and chancellor to his time as Chief Justice, his integrity never left him, and he never abandoned his principles.

Chief Justice Hannah’s extraordinary career is an example of the legal profession at its best. His contributions to the State of Arkansas and its judiciary are immeasurable. He spent over thirty-seven years on the bench and will be remembered for his fair and respectful treatment of all who came in contact with him. His thoughtful leadership of the Supreme Court made the institution better, and his legacy will remain with us for years to come.”

Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge also provided a statement on Hannah’s passing: “Arkansas has lost a fine attorney and judge. From my time as a clerk at the Court of Appeals, I know firsthand that Judge Hannah was always willing to give advice to young, aspiring lawyers. Judge Hannah consistently put the people of Arkansas and the rule of law above all other considerations. He has only been away from the Court a short time and like many Arkansans, I am saddened by his sudden passing, but I know the impact he had on our State’s judiciary will not be soon forgotten. As I said when the chief justice announced his retirement, throughout his lengthy career he consistently provided a fair and impartial approach to any question or case brought before him. I extend my sincere thoughts and prayers to his wife, Pat, and the entire Hannah family.”

James (Jim) Hannah, recently retired Chief Justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court, died on January 14, 2016. He is survived by his wife Pat Johnson Hannah, who was his rock and soul mate, and 5 children, 13 grandchildren, and one great grandchild.

He received both law and accounting degrees from the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville in 1968 and was admitted to the Arkansas Bar that same year. He began his law practice in Searcy at the law firm of Lightle, Tedder, Hannah & Beebe, where former governor Mike Beebe was a partner.

Jim Hannah was a tireless worker for the betterment of the Arkansas judicial system, both as Chief Justice and before. Between 1969 and 1978, he was city attorney for 6 cities including Augusta and Searcy. He was also deputy prosecuting attorney for Woodruff County and an instructor at Harding University. In addition, he worked as a legislative assistant for then Governor Dale Bumpers, who was a mentor, and served on the State Board of Pardons and Parole.

He particularly loved his time on the bench where he served at all levels. He was appointed city judge for Kensett and Rosebud and then served as a White County Juvenile Judge. Next, he was elected Chancery and Probate Judge for the 17th Judicial District in 1978, a position he occupied for the next 22 years.

In 2000, he was elected Associate Justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court. He served in that position until 2005, when he was elected Chief Justice of the Court. He was Chief Justice until his early retirement on September 1, 2015.

Apart from his duties as a Judge, Justice, and Chief Justice, he found time to work on and lead a variety of committees and organizations to improve our system of justice. First and foremost, he believed in access to the courts in civil cases for all Arkansans, no matter how poor or impoverished they might be.

While serving on the Supreme Court he worked on the Arkansas Judicial Council’s Judicial Resources Assessment Committee, where he served as chair and which determined the need for additional judges; Legislative Committee; Client Security Fund Committee; Technology Committee; Child Support Committee; District Court Resources Board as Chair, and the Drug Court Advisory Committee as Chair. He was also on the Board and Chair of the Arkansas Judicial Council and a Member of the Arkansas Court Reporters Board.

He served and led national committees as well. He was appointed by Chief Justice John Roberts of the United States Supreme Court to the Judicial Conference Committee on Federal-State Jurisdiction and by President Barak Obama to the State Judicial Institute, where he served as Chairman. He was also President of the Council of Chief Justices and was Chair of the National Center on State Courts Board.

During his tenure as Chief Justice, the Arkansas Supreme Court under Jim’s leadership converted to an electronic filing system and implemented live streaming of Court oral arguments. In 2001, the court also began to appear in venues outside of Little Rock to hear cases. Taking the Court out into the state, or Appeals on Wheels as it was dubbed, was a vital educational tool. He understood the value and importance for our citizens seeing justice at work.

Jim Hannah believed strongly in the separation of powers among the judicial, legislative, and executive branches, and was quick to challenge any encroachment on the power of the judiciary by the other two branches.

His strong moral fiber led him naturally to promote judicial ethics through the Judicial Code and the Discipline and Disability Commission, both on the bench and in judicial elections.

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.