We lost a true giant in Arkansas this week. Without question, Federal District Judge G. Thomas Eisele made a positive difference for our state. While Judge Eisele may not be a household name, he mattered.
For someone as honorable and humble as Judge, nothing would make him more pleased. We should take note, not only of his life well lived and the difference he made, but also of the standard that he set.
The day I first met Judge Eisele, he was in his judicial chambers working away on an opinion. I darkened his door as a second-year law student hoping to work for him as a clerk. I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had heard enough to be intimidated and fascinated. Honestly, I was nervous as heck. His trademark gentlemanly humility put me at ease quickly. His passion and intellect were on full display in our discussion.
I returned to law school on that day in the spring of 2002 with the same thought I have today: Judge Eisele is the epitome of a fair and impartial judge and is someone who I want to strive to emulate. I continue to be honored that, as part of my first job after law school, I got to be the one to say, “All rise,” when he entered the courtroom.
When I came to know the Judge as his law clerk, the passion and energy he had during his early days as a lawyer were still there – only seasoned by age. I enjoyed hearing him tell stories of his time working with and campaigning for Winthrop Rockefeller. It was also clear that Judge was acutely aware of the injustices present in the 1950s and 1960s in Arkansas and chose to work to remedy them through his politics and his law practice, prior to joining the federal bench. In the early days of his career, as always, Judge was dedicated to making a difference. But more than that, Judge loved his work. He relished his relationships with his law clerks and staff. It is rare to find someone who is at the same time hard-working and dedicated while also humble, kind, and caring to all around them. That was G. Thomas Eisele.
During my clerkship, I remember working closely with Judge on a somewhat routine condemnation action involving land adjoining the Arkansas river. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was seeking to take all use of this land from the farmer whose family had grown soybeans and rice on that ground for many years. The Corps also refused to pay him much at all for this taking. The federal government did what it often does: it produced a lot of bureaucracy for this farmer to face as he contested the condemnation.
I worked alongside Judge to scrutinize the issues and produce lengthy orders, which included allowing the case to proceed to a jury trial. Judge made fair decision after fair decision, both before and during the trial. When the jury came back, it awarded the farmer the money that he sought. I stood next to Judge Eisele as that grizzled Arkansas farmer tried, unsuccessfully, to hold back tears. Judge’s fair but friendly face never changed on the bench. Once in chambers, he smiled. Judge knew that the trial, his court and our work had made a difference to at least one person in the courtroom that day.
I also remember seeing Judge wrestle with the final stages of a death penalty case that had been before him for many years. The case involved a terrible murder, an Arkansas death penalty conviction for that murder, and, for the part before Judge Eisele, a challenge to the death penalty due to the Defendant’s diagnosed schizophrenia. Judge had clearly grappled with this case for some time. Over the years this case was pending, the Eighth Circuit and the U.S. Supreme Court had reviewed and remanded several of his opinions involving forced medication of inmates for the purpose of making them sane and executing them.
It was obvious in this case (as with them all) that being a Judge wasn’t just a job to Judge Eisele. At the end of this case, I saw him relive the years he had spent pouring over the facts, analyzing the law, and striving to reach the right result on numerous decisions. That is the real work of a lawyer, especially a judge. No one carried it out better than Judge Eisele.
Judge handled hundreds of cases a year and thousands over his career. Occasionally, those cases did make headlines: finding the Arkansas Prison System’s treatment of prisoners in the 1960s and 1970s unconstitutional; ordering a more thorough environmental impact statement for a dam project on the Cossatot river; ruling the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines unconstitutional; questioning whether Kenneth Starr had a conflict of interest in the Whitewater case; and finding that an Arkansas town had racially profiled its Hispanic residents, to name a few.
While it is easy to cite those high-profile cases that put Judge Eisele in the headlines, his greatest impact was in what he did day in and day out. He pursued justice. He treated all fairly. He worked hard. He sought to make the right decision for the right reasons. He adhered to the rule of law. Beneath his bushy eyebrows and his understated presence, he continued the daily dedication to ensuring that his court embodied fairness. He paired that fairness with unrelenting kindness.
In this age of overly aggressive conflict, flashy presentation, shameless headline chasing, and seemingly unfettered ego, we would do well to remember the way Judge Eisele made his mark.
We may not remember the stories in each of the thousands of cases he handled, but they were stories and conflicts and problems emanating from the fabric of our state. We are all better and we are better as a state for having Judge Eisele on the bench to ensure a fair and equal federal court and system in Arkansas and render just decisions in case after case after case.
His unwavering commitment to justice, his dedicated work ethic, his intellectual honesty and his uncommon decency leave us with a standard to strive for as we face the challenges of our time.
Editor’s note: Conner Eldridge lives in Fayetteville and is a former U.S. Prosecuting Attorney for the Western District of Arkansas. He also ran as a Democrat in the 2016 race for U.S. Senate.