Veteran Fayetteville attorney Christy Comstock is Arkansas’ newest federal magistrate judge

by Paul Gatling ([email protected]) 1,849 views 

Judge Christy Comstock started an eight-year appointment May 1 as a federal magistrate judge in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Arkansas.

In a law career spanning nearly 30 years, attorney Christy Comstock became one of Arkansas’ most formidable trucking defense attorneys — if not the nation.

“She had a national following in transportation law,” said Fayetteville attorney Robert L. (Bobby) Jones III, a partner at Conner & Winters whom Comstock considers one of her significant mentors.

But Comstock had always wanted to be a judge, inspired by federal clerkships early in her career.

Earlier this year, Comstock realized that ambition when the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Arkansas in Fort Smith appointed her a federal magistrate judge. The eight-year appointment, announced by Chief Judge Susan Hickey of the Western District, started May 1.

With roughly 3 million residents, Arkansas has two federal districts, nine magistrate judges and 11 district judges. Comstock serves in the Western District’s Fayetteville Division, which has offices in the John Paul Hammerschmidt Federal Building. Two other federal magistrate judges are in the Western District — one in Fort Smith, Chief Magistrate Judge Mark Ford, and one in Texarkana, Magistrate Judge Barry Bryant.

According to the federal public notice, the duties of a federal magistrate judge include presiding over initial proceedings in criminal cases, trials of misdemeanor cases, pretrial matters and other proceedings in civil and criminal cases, conducting civil settlement conferences and disposition of civil cases.

The court accepted applications for the job from June 8, 2020, through Aug. 7, 2020. A merit selection panel composed of attorneys and other community members reviewed applicants and recommended to the district judges the five finalists it considered the best qualified. After an extensive background check, they chose Comstock.

Comstock said she had never applied before but considered the timing right at this point in her career.

“If I was going to make the jump, this was the time to do it,” she said. “I will be 55 [this year], and I’ve always wanted to be a judge ever since I was a brand-new baby lawyer. It has always been a goal.”

Comstock replaced Magistrate Judge Erin L. Wiedemann, who retired.

Comstock’s mantra about her profession is to work harder than your opponent. According to those who know her, that’s always been evident.

“She is extremely smart and very knowledgeable about a ton of law areas,” said Fayetteville attorney Jason Wales, who worked with Comstock for 14 years until her appointment to the bench. “But she worked harder than anybody I’ve ever seen. She’s very tenacious and proud of her work product and gave 100% to make sure she did everything to the best of her ability. And her ability exceeded most attorneys.”

Wales was already working with Fayetteville attorney John Everett, one of the state’s top trial lawyers, when Everett hired Comstock in 2007. They spent 10 years together before Wales and Comstock left to start their firm.

“John Everett hired me over the weekend, and the following week he said to Jason, ‘Here’s your new law partner,” Comstock recalled. “We all had a great decade together. There’s no better teacher than John Everett. It doesn’t matter what the subject is. And Jason and I got along magnificently. We never had a cross word in 14 years. And I do miss him. This job would be the only job that would cause me to leave that partnership.”

The oldest of four children, Comstock grew up in rural Sebastian County and graduated from Mansfield High School. Her father was an electrician, and her mother was a public school teacher.

While often gathered around the kitchen table as a family, Comstock recalled her parents’ oft-repeated career advice that she could either be a doctor or a lawyer.

“They said that so many times that I just sort of took it for granted,” Comstock recalled. “I thought it was serious but later realized they were jesting. But at some point when I was a kid, in my mind, I knew I didn’t want to be a doctor. So here I am.”

Comstock graduated with honors from the University of Arkansas in 1989 with an economics degree. She earned a Juris Doctor with high honors from the UA School of Law in 1992, where she was note and comment editor of the Arkansas Law Review.

Comstock’s focus on transportation-related litigation started quickly. While working for Jones Gilbreath Jackson & Moll in Fort Smith during the mid-1990s, she recalled assisting Bob Jones III on her very first case, defending a transportation company.

“A load of bees had overturned on old Highway 71 near Mountainburg and nearly stung a man to death,” she said. “I was fascinated with transportation after that.”

Comstock worked for Jones and with Jones during her career.

“I’ve known Christy since she was still in law school,” Jones said. “She works hard. She’ll make a great judge because she will be better prepared than the lawyers that come before her.”

As for the bee case?

“People exchanged money, and the man who was stung finally got better,” Comstock said.

Comstock said Arkansas’ legal community is very collegial, and she’ll miss that. She’ll also miss some of the clients she worked with and connections made during a decorated career.

In 2005, she founded the annual Arkansas Trucking Seminar. In the transportation industry, it’s considered a premier gathering, attracting professionals from the U.S. and Canada each year to Northwest Arkansas. The event focuses on educating and networking trucking and transportation stakeholders concerning litigation and business practices that affect the industry.

The last in-person event before the pandemic welcomed more than 700 attendees.

“Her ascension to the bench leaves a big hole for Arkansas trucking companies who relied heavily on her skills,” said Rogers attorney Marshall Ney, a partner with Friday, Eldredge & Clark. “But we’re gaining a new magistrate with the intellect and temperament needed to execute the job very well.”

Ney called Comstock a great colleague in private practice and a valuable member of the local bar.

“I can’t recall ever having the opportunity to work the same side of a case with her, but we had several cases as adversaries,” he said. “She was vigilant for clients but always was patient, reasonable and very pleasant. She was a true joy to have across the table.

“Judge Wiedemann’s retirement left big shoes to fill, but if anyone can fill them, it’s Christy Comstock.”

Comstock would be able to seek reappointment to the bench in 2029. She said a return to law practice isn’t likely.

“I’d be surprised [if that was the case],” she said with a grin. “This is a pretty nice gig. I told Judge [Tim] Brooks the first week on the job, ‘I can read as much law as I want to. I can take as much time as I want to make a good decision.’ That’s a luxury you don’t have in private practice. It’s a different kind of hectic.”

Brooks, a longtime Fayetteville attorney appointed a federal judge in 2013 by President Barack Obama, said he’s known Comstock since the 1990s when she clerked for the Western District. He said most of his memories of Comstock are from her days working with Everett and Wales.

“That was one of the best firms in Northwest Arkansas,” he said.

Brooks said Comstock was always at the top of his referral list when they were both attorneys when his firm had a conflict because he knew she would provide the highest quality legal representation possible.

“Christy is known for being very smart, but a lot of lawyers are smart,” Brooks said. “Her intelligence, though, was matched with her experience from working in chambers. The resulting combination is a very smart lawyer who is also an extraordinary writer. One of Christy’s greatest strengths is her ability to quickly distill the issues in a case to their concise essence.”

Brooks also mentioned Comstock’s invitation a few years ago by her peers to become a member of the American College of Trial Lawyers.

“This is an honor that is reserved for the tiniest of fractions of all practicing lawyers,” Brooks explained. “In legal circles, being a member of the American College signifies the pinnacle of achievement, reputation, ethics and trustworthiness.”