Former Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Donald Corbin died Monday. He was 78.
According to The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture, Corbin was elected to the Arkansas Supreme Court in 1990 and served three eight-year terms until retiring Dec. 31, 2014.
“A lot of people have said this about me. ‘He’s not the smartest judge who’s come down the pike, but he’s honest, he’s conscientious, and he means well,’” Corbin said, according to the transcript of an interview at his home on Lake Catherine on July 27, 2015, by journalist Ernie Dumas. It was copyrighted by the University of Arkansas and the Supreme Court Historical Society and donated to the UA’s David and Barbara Pryor Center for Arkansas Oral and Visual History.
Corbin was in the majority on many controversial decisions. He wrote the majority opinion striking the part of the state’s term limits law passed in 1992 that would have limited members of the U.S. House of Representatives to three terms and the U.S. Senate to two terms. He wrote that the law added a qualification not included in the U.S. Constitution. The U.S. Supreme Court later affirmed the decision in the case U.S. Term Limits v. Thornton. He was a participant in the long-running Lake View School District No. 25 v. Huckabee case, where, under the Supreme Court’s supervision, the Legislature increased funding for schools in an effort to ensure all students receive an equitable and adequate education.
He also wrote the majority decision in a 2014 case striking an Arkansas law requiring voters to present a government-issued identification – a decision he knew would be controversial.
“I think we were all aware that it was a political hot potato, but I took the job knowing that I had to decide cases based on facts and law and not political repercussions,” he told Dumas. “If courts decide cases based on political pressure, then the third branch of government is going to be on a leg that is not equal to the other branches, and it is pretty hard to sit on a stool that doesn’t have three equal legs.”
In four cases, Corbin said the U.S. and Arkansas Constitutions offer equal-protection, due-process, and privacy protections to homosexuals. He joined a unanimous decision in 2002 invalidating the state’s anti-sodomy law, for which he had voted as a legislator in 1977. In 2006, he authored the decision in Howard v. State stating that same-sex couples could not be prevented from serving as foster parents. In 2011, he voted with the rest of the court to strike an initiated act that prevented homosexual couples from adopting or serving as foster parents. When Pulaski County Circuit Judge Chris Piazza invalidated a constitutional amendment making same-sex marriages illegal, Corbin supported affirming the ruling, but the court never issued an opinion. He told Dumas the court planned to affirm Piazza but never released the decision because no dissent was ever written. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2015 declared all such laws unconstitutional.
The 2006 decision resulted in his receiving death threats, he told Dumas.
“I have a Beretta by my bedside over there,” he said. “It’s not that I’m scared, but they’re not going to catch me by surprise, I don’t think. It’s just part of it, Ernie. You’re out there and you’re dealing with people’s issues, problems, and it’s not a vacuum. People are very, very motivated in what they believe. I was in the business of pissing people off. At least half of them were going to be, and the half that won thought they deserved to win anyway. So it just left the ones that were mad at me out there.”
Corbin was born March 29, 1938, in Hot Springs. He earned his law degree in 1966 and practiced law in Lewisville, where he was elected city attorney. He was elected to the Arkansas House of Representatives in 1970 and then in 1980 to the Arkansas Court of Appeals, where he served 10 years, the last four as chief judge.
Corbin told Dumas that, while in the Legislature, he pushed for state funding of kindergartens and a $2 million appropriation for Arkansas Children’s Hospital’s neonatal-care unit. When Sen. Guy Jones of Conway tried to push through a bill that would colorize then black-and-white public television on AETN, he held up the bill until Jones promised that he would file a bill making the service statewide. During the administration of Gov. Dale Bumpers, he helped pass a law allowing doctors to retire part of their medical school debt if they practiced in a rural area.