Editor’s Note: The following story appeared in the May 24 issue of the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal. “Then & Now” is a profile of a past member of the Business Journal’s Forty Under 40 class.
In April, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals appointed Fayetteville attorney Bianca Rucker to a 14-year term as Arkansas’ newest federal bankruptcy judge. In a recent interview, Rucker said the new job inside the John Paul Hammerschmidt Federal Building in downtown Fayetteville is a homecoming of sorts.
Before the judicial appointment, Rucker had been a Chapter 7 bankruptcy trustee for the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, Western District of Arkansas, since September 2016. She practiced primarily in Fayetteville before the judge she is replacing. Judge Ben Barry retired April 25 after completing his appointment as U.S. Bankruptcy Judge for the Eastern and Western Districts of Arkansas.
After earning a juris doctor with honors in 2006 from the William H. Bowen School of Law at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, Rucker moved to Fayetteville and spent the next five years as a staff attorney for two judges in U.S. Bankruptcy Court, first for Richard Taylor and then for Barry.
“Starting here is not an unfamiliar place for me,” Rucker said. “It was like coming home. I’m so happy to return and see the faces of so many people that worked here when I worked here before.”
Rucker, 41, was sworn in on April 26 and recently gaveled in her first court session. Her official investiture ceremony is tentatively scheduled for this fall in Fayetteville. She is one of three federal bankruptcy judges in Arkansas, serving the state’s eastern and western districts.
Rucker is just the fourth woman in Arkansas to receive an appointment as a federal bankruptcy judge, following Mary Davies Scott (appointed 1987), Audrey Evans (2002) and Phyllis Jones (2015).
Rucker said she is humbled that the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recommended her as Barry’s replacement. The Eighth Circuit oversees all bankruptcy judges in its seven-state jurisdiction, including Arkansas.
Rucker characterized a bankruptcy judge’s role as limited but essential.
“I’m very fortunate they trusted me with the responsibility,” she said. “The job is to listen to the facts and evidence and then apply the law. And it’s important to be efficient. It involves people’s lives and finances, so you want to keep cases moving.”
Rucker said being appointed to the federal bench is something she worked to achieve. She’s represented parties on all sides of the bankruptcy process.
“In my second year [working for Judge Barry], I knew I wanted to be a bankruptcy judge one day,” she said. “I tried to get the kind of experience that would make me a better candidate.”
She said the analytical approach a judge must take to reach a case ruling appealed to her.
“A judge doesn’t advocate for one side or the other but is focused on the correct application of the law based on the evidence in the record,” she explained. “Analyzing the law to figure out the outcome is a way of thinking that I like.”
Before being appointed as a bankruptcy trustee, Rucker was one of the state’s top bankruptcy attorneys. After five years as a staff attorney in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Fayetteville, she went to work for Wright Lindsey Jennings in Rogers in 2011. Rucker focused her practice on bankruptcy, foreclosure and commercial litigation. She ultimately made partner, and the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal honored her as a member of its Forty Under 40 class in 2016.
Rucker said transitioning from a lawyer to a judge is a bittersweet point in her career. Mostly, she will miss the colleagues that practiced bankruptcy law — and litigating.
Still, she knows the kind of judge she wants to be.
“I want to be fair,” she said. “At the end of the day, I want everyone to feel like, whether they won or lost, that the judge heard them. And that it was a fair process, and they understand the ruling. Both the lawyers and their clients.”
Rucker has served as president of the Northwest Arkansas Debtor and Creditor Bar Association, and she is an adjunct professor at the University of Arkansas School of Law.