The First Judicial Circuit of Arkansas is comprised of Cross, Lee, Monroe, Phillips, St. Francis, and Woodruff Counties in eastern Arkansas. It was not until January 1, 1979, that the Circuit evolved into its present judicial structure and geographical configuration. The Circuit has been the subject of several different judicial systems since the first non-American Indian set foot on its soil. Until July 1, 2001, the First Judicial Circuit was known as the First Judicial District. Perhaps the designation as a "district" was preferred over a "circuit" designation because of the distinction between circuit court and chancery court. The following is an attempt to provide some basic history concerning how the First Judicial Circuit progressed to its present day judicial structure and its geographical configuration.
1686 to 1819
The first judicial system governing the First Judicial Circuit of Arkansas did not begin with the admission of Arkansas into the Union in 1836, as one might expect. Rather, legal authority, such as it existed, began shortly after the arrival of the French in the seventeenth century. The first settlement in the lands later to become the State of Arkansas was at Arkansas Post, located in Desha County in eastern Arkansas. Henri de Tonty, the first feudal seigneur, dispensed both civil and criminal justice from 1686 to 1699. Other Frenchmen followed his lead, serving until the Spanish gained control in 1766. Ensign Le Gros de Gandcour became the first Spaniard to serve as "judge" in these lands. The Spanish dispensed civil and criminal justice until 1804.
The lands of Arkansas became a part of the District of Louisiana upon the signing of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and were attached to the Territory of Indiana for judicial purposes. The Louisiana Purchase brought with it the English common law as the law of the land. American military post commandants presided over legal matters during this period. In 1804, President Thomas Jefferson appointed three Superior Court Judges to dispense civil and criminal justice in the Louisiana Territory. They were Judge Thomas Terry Davis, Judge John Griffin, and Judge Henry Vandenburg; all of whom served only one year. From 1805 to 1819, successive Presidents of the United States appointed the following Superior Court Judges: John B.C. Lucas, Return Jonathan Meigs, Jr., John Coburn, Rufus Easton, Otho Shrader, William Sprigg, Silas Bent, and Alexander Stuart. According to an article published in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazatte, dated June 5, 2005, recently found documents indicate that on November 19, 1808, explorer Meriweather Lewis appointed Francois Vaugine to the post of judge of common pleas at Arkansas Post. In 1808, Arkansas Post was the administrative center for the Arkansas District of the Louisiana Territory, of which Lewis was governor.
In 1806, the territorial legislature created the District of Arkansas as part of the Louisiana Territory. When Louisiana became a state in 1812, the District of Arkansas became part of the Territory of Missouri, with judicial authority remaining in the Superior Courts mentioned above. At that time, the lands of present day Arkansas fell under the New Madrid District (the northern 3 of the state), the Indian Lands (all the lands south of the Arkansas River), and the Arkansas District (all of the lands north of the Arkansas river and south of the New Madrid District).
On March 2, 1819, the United States Congress established the separate Territory of Arkansas. [3 Stat. 493, 95 (1819)] Two days later, President James Monroe appointed three judges to the Arkansas Superior Court. The three were Judge Charles Jouett of Michigan, Judge Andrew Scott of Missouri, and Judge Robert P. Letcher of Kentucky. Not only were they members of the first bench and bar of the territory, they were also members of the first legislature. They, along with Governor James Miller and Secretary Robert Crittenden, held the first legislative session on August 3, 1819, at Arkansas Post and established five laws. One of these acts divided the Arkansas Territory into five counties. Another act divided the five counties into two judicial circuits; the first circuit included the counties of Arkansas and Lawrence and the second circuit included Pulaski, Clark, and Hempstead Counties. The Superior Court judges were assigned to the duties of the different circuits; were required to live therein; and were required to hold terms of circuit court, as well as to meet and to hold two regular annual terms of the Superior Court.  It has been written that only Judge Scott ever presided as a judge on the bench as Judge Jouett and Judge Letcher left before assuming the bench because they found life in the territory too severe. If they did serve on the bench, it was only for a short period as Judge Jouett's replacement was appointed in the same year he was appointed (1819) and Judge Letcher's replacement was appointed two years later (1821).
A judicial circuit in eastern Arkansas in the early days covered a vast area, which included hills (Crowley's Ridge), swamps, prairies, forest, thickets, rivers, lakes, and the like. The judges made semi-annual trips on horseback around the circuit. The circuits were so big that the judges, upon returning from a ride of the circuit, would sometime have to immediately start the ride again. The Biological History of Eastern Arkansas  gives this account:
Thus the court was almost literally "in the saddle." The saddle-bags were their law offices, and some of them, upon reaching their respective county seats, would signalize their brief stays with hard work all day in the court-room and late roystering at the tavern bar at night, regardless of the demurrers, pleas, replications, rejoinders and sur-rejoinders, declarations and bills that they knew must be confronted on the morrow. Among these jolly sojourners, "during court week" in the villages, dignity and circumspection were often given over exclusively to the keeping of the judge and prosecutor. Circumstances thus made the bench and bar as social a set as ever came together.
1819 to 1836
From 1819 to 1836, the First Circuit gradually added counties not by increasing its physical size but by carving new counties from Arkansas and Lawrence Counties. On May 1, 1820, Phillips County was carved out of Arkansas County, becoming the seventh of Arkansas' seventy-five counties. Named for Sylvanus Phillips, a member of the Territorial Legislature who settled near the mouth of the St. Francis River in 1797, Phillips County comprised all six present-day counties of the First Judicial Circuit with the exception of a small portion of Monroe and Woodruff Counties. On October 13, 1827, St. Francis County, named for the St. Francis River which flows through it, became the fourteenth county to be created. On November 2, 1829, Monroe County, named for sitting President James Monroe, was created as the twentieth county in the state. By the 1830's the six counties of the present day First Judicial Circuit were found in the counties of Monroe, Phillips, St. Francis, Jackson, and Crittenden counties. The judges of the First Circuit were: Judge Thomas P. Eskridge (1823-1827), Judge Andrew Scott (1827-1829), and Judge Sam C. Roane (1929-1836). [Other accounts give the names of the judges as, Andrew Scott 1819-1827, Thomas P. Eskridge (1827-1835), Archibald Yell, (1835-1836) and Judge Joseph Selden (term unknown)].
From 1821 to 1828, the judges acted as both original and appellate judges. If one judge presided, it was considered a court of original jurisdiction. If two or more judges were present, it was an appellate court. In the early part of 1824 two Superior Court Judges, Andrew Scott and Joseph Selden, found themselves in heated disagreement on a regular basis. Things went from bad to worse, at which time the two jurists decided to settle their differences. They did not go to court, however; they crossed the territorial boundary into Tennessee and settled their dispute at ten paces. Judge Scott was never bothered by Judge Selden again, although friends of the late Judge Selden blocked Senate confirmation of Scott's reappointment to the bench later that year. However, according to the histories available, Judge Scott served the bench again from 1827 to 1829.
1836 to 1899
On July 4, 1836, Arkansas became the twenty-fifth state of the United States and immediately adopted its Constitution of 1836. Arkansas has adopted a total of five constitutions, the 1836, the 1861, the 1864, the 1868, and the present 1874 constitution. The 1836 Arkansas Constitution vested the judicial power of the State in one Supreme Court, in Circuit Courts, in County Courts, and in Justices of the Peace. At that time law and equity were combined and heard by the Circuit Court Judge. Matters of probate were heard by the judge of the County Court until 1937 when Amendment 24 to the 1874 Constitution placed probate matters under the authority of the Chancery Court. Article 18 of the 1874 Constitution established the Judicial Circuits of Arkansas and placed in the First Judicial Circuit, the following counties, Phillips, Lee, St. Francis, Woodruff, and Monroe, along with Prairie and White Counties. Cross County was placed in the Second Judicial Circuit along with the counties of Mississippi, Crittenden, Poinsett, Craighead, Green, Clayton [Clay] and Randolph. It would not be until 1979 that Cross County joined the First Judicial Circuit which also witnessed the departure of Prairie and White Counties from the Circuit.
Judge Sam C. Roane served as the last Territorial Judge from April 17, 1827 to 1836. The first case reported as originating from the First Judicial Circuit in the Arkansas Reports, the official reports of the Arkansas Supreme Court, was Eason v. Fisher, cited as 1 Ark. 41 (1836). It was a Phillips County Circuit Court case (May term, 1834). The lawsuit concerned the assignment of a $1,300.00 note and mortgage. The first Judge of the First Circuit after Arkansas became a state was probably Judge John C.P. Tolleson who was serving on the bench in 1839. His name first appears in Dunn v. State, 2 Ark. 343 (1840). This criminal case involved the trial of an "accessory before the fact to murder."
A list of the Circuit Judges, along with the date of appointment/election, who served the First Circuit after Arkansas became a state and who heard both law and equity cases is as follows: John C.P. Tollison of Helena, 1836 (probably); W.K. Sebastian of Helena, November 19, 1840; John C.P. Tollison, February 4, 1842 (his second term of office); John T. Jones of Helena, elected by the legislature of Arkansas on December 2, 1842; Thomas B. Hanly, May 1851; C.W. Adams, November 2, 1852; George W. Beasely, September 6, 1852; Mark W. Alexander, date unknown; E.C. Bronough, August 25, 1858; O.H. Oates, March 3, 1859; James M. Hanks, September 17, 1865; John E. Bennett, July 23, 1868; C.C. Waters, February 23, 1871, Marshall .L. Stephenson of Helena, February 23, 1871 (or March 23, 1871), to December 19, 1872, at which time he was elected associate justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court; W.H.H. Clayton, March 23. 1871; and J.N. Cypert, October 1874.
Cross County, named for Colonel David C. Cross, an area political leader, was carved from portions of St. Francis, Crittenden, and Poinsett Counties on November 15, 1862. Woodruff County, named for William E. Woodruff, the founder of the Arkansas Gazette, was carved from St. Francis and Jackson Counties on November 26, 1862. Lee County was the last county to be created from other counties in the First Judicial Circuit. Named for General Robert E. Lee, Lee County was created as the 72nd Arkansas county on April 17, 1873, by carving it from St. Francis, Phillips, Monroe, and Crittenden Counties.
Article 7, Section 1 of the Arkansas Constitution of 1874 granted to the General Assembly the authority to establish, "when deemed expedient," separate courts of chancery. On June 24, 1897, the Arkansas General Assembly during an Extraordinary Session enacted Act 37 which established the fifth chancery district composed of Cross, Woodruff, St. Francis, Lee, and Phillips counties, along with Crittenden, Poinsett, and Greene counties. Judge Edward D. Robertson was appointed Chancellor of the Fifth Chancery Circuit in 1897 and served until 1919. Judge Robertson lived on West Porter Street in Helena. He is remembered as a tall man with steely eyes and a vandyke beard. In the early days of the Court, transportation was not what it is today. The Court held sessions in Lee County only twice a year. During those sessions, attorneys from all over the district arrived by train, prepared to spend the better part of a week in court. They stay at the local hotel while in attendance in Court. Such extended stays in the City of Marianna were not viewed as any great inconvenience, for the assembled members of the bar usually "convened following Court for an evening of rather revered entertainment for that day, i.e. poker and alcoholic accouterments." Judge Robertson was a straight laced, hard bound Presbyterian and to say the least gave no personal or judicial approval of such conduct. As the story goes, it was his custom when Court convened in Phillips County to invite all of the attending members of the bar to his home for the evening whereat he had assembled, in rows, chairs upon which were placed hymnals containing previously selected hymns which the assembled group would sing, accompanied by Mrs. Robertson's employment of the family piano. This of course would be embellished by "tea and cookies" and would consume the entire evening. At the conclusion the assembled members of the bar would very courteously and graciously acknowledge their gratitude for a delightful evening's entertainment, albeit somewhat apart from that which they had earlier contemplated. [As told by Jimason Daggett of Marianna]
Act 26 of March 1, 1899 established the fourth chancery district which was composed of Monroe, Prairie, Cleveland, Jefferson and Arkansas counties. Judge John M. Elliott served as Monroe County's first Chancellor from March, 1899 to January 1, 1925.
1897 to 1919
After the passage of Act 37 in 1897, the First Judicial Circuit was served by one Circuit Judge and one Chancellor. The Circuit Judge held two terms of Civil and Criminal Court in each county each year. The Chancellor held three terms of Chancery and Probate Court in each county yearly. [Effective January 1, 1970, statutory terms of Chancery and Probate Court were abolished which allowed the Chancellors to establish their own court calendars. Arkansas Statutes Annotated Sections 22-406-1 and 22-406-2.] [Effective January 1, 1979, statutory terms of Circuit Court were abolished which allowed the Circuit Judges to establish their own terms of court. ASA 22-310]
Chancery Court from 1897 to July 1, 2001
With the appointment of Judge Edward D. Robertson in 1897, the First Judicial Circuit Chancery Court assumed responsibility over all matters of equity and probate. Following Judge Robertson, Judge A. L. Hutchins was elected in 1918 and served from 1919 to 1954, a total of forty-five years. He lived in Forrest City and traveled the eight county district by train and automobile. After World War II, Judge Hutchins would take the bus from Forrest City to Brinkley and then ride to the Monroe County Courthouse in Clarendon with James B. Sharp's father, W.W. Sharp, of the Sharp & Sharp law firm of Brinkley. Judge Hutchins held Chancery Court in Phillips County once every three months and stayed in the old Cleburne Hotel on Cherry Street. Ex Parte matters and uncontested divorces were presented to him in his hotel room on occasions. When Judge Hutchins retired, Govan Burk of Marianna, Richard McCullough of Forrest City, and Ford Smith of Augusta ran for his position. Judge Ford Smith was elected and served from 1955 to 1972.
Until sometime in the 1950's there were no official court reporters in the chancery district. All cases were presented ore tenus or submitted on depositions (usually taken by one of the attorney's secretaries in narrative form or by a reporter hired for the purpose by the attorneys).
It was not until Judge Ford Smith took the bench that a "regular" day of court was held each Thursday in St. Francis County to attend to the Court's business for all six counties in the district. After statutory terms of court were abolished, each county had a "regular" day of court each month. Uncontested matters and matters of short trial length were handled on "regular" days of court.
Act 435 of 1967 created a second Chancery Judge position for the First Judicial Circuit. George Eldridge of Augusta was appointed Chancellor, Position 2, by Governor Faubus and served from 1967 through 1968. Under Arkansas Law, an appointee may not run for election to the position for which he was appointed when his term expires. George K. Cracraft of Helena was elected without opposition. He served as the first elected Chancellor for Position 2 from January 1, 1969, to December 31, 1980.
Act 432 of 1977 placed Cross, Lee, Phillips, Monroe, St. Francis, and Woodruff Counties in the First Judicial Circuit for both law and equity jurisdiction, effective January 1, 1979. Prior to 1979, Cross County was in the First Circuit for equity jurisdiction only and Monroe County was in the Seventeenth Circuit for law and equity. Judge William Lee of Clarendon was the Circuit Judge for Monroe County from 1971 to 1978, when Monroe left the Seventeenth Judicial Circuit and joined the First Circuit. Judge Lee had been the Prosecuting Attorney for the 17th Circuit from 1955 to 1970.
Judge George Cracraft ran unopposed for the Arkansas Court of Appeals, District 1, in 1970 and served from 1971 until retiring on December 31, 1980. Judge Cracraft served as the Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals for two separate terms. Judge Cracraft is a World War II veteran who was a Army-Air Corp bomber pilot in the European theater. John Mauzy Pittman ran unopposed for Judge Cracraft's vacated Chancellor position in 1980 and began serving on January 1, 1981. Judge Pittman served as Chancellor until January 1, 1993, when he assumed Judge Cracraft's position on the Arkansas Court of Appeals where he still serves today. Judge Pittman was elected to the appellate court bench without opposition. Kathleen Bell, of Helena, and John Martin, of Brinkley, ran for Judge Pittman's Position 2 in 1992. Judge Bell won the election in the May Democratic Primary, had no opposition in the November General Election, and took office on January 1, 1993. She continues to serve in that position to date. She was re-elected in May of 1999 and was sworn in on January 1, 2000. She was re-elected in May of 2005 and was sworn in on January 1, 2006.
When Act 435 of 1967 created the additional Chancery Judge position, Judge Smith's position became designated as Position 1. When he retired in December of 1992, Richard McCulloch ran unopposed for the position and served from 1973 until his untimely death on December 4, 1981. Governor Frank White appointed Harvey Yates of Helena to serve as Chancellor until the next general election in 1982. James Sprott of Brinkley and Bentley E. Story of Forrest City ran in the Democratic Primary on May 25, 1982, for the unexpired term of Judge McCullough. Ben Story received the Democratic nomination and ran unopposed in the General Election in November 1982. Judge Story began serving on January 1, 1983. He was re-elected, without opposition, in May of 1984, and was sworn in on January 1, 1985. He was again re-elected, without opposition, in May of 1990. As a result of the Persian Gulf War (Operation Desert Storm), Judge Story was mobilized with his U.S. Army Reserve Unit in Nashville, Tennessee on November 18, 1990, and served in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Iraq from December 15, 1990, to May 6, 1991. On January 1, 1991, he was sworn in for another six-year term from his post in Saudi Arabia via telephone, with Judge John Pittman taking his oath. The attorneys of the First Judicial Circuit met and elected John Martin of Brinkley as a temporary replacement for Judge Story. Judge Martin served from November 28, 1990, until May 15, 1991, when Judge Story returned to the bench from active duty. Judge Story was re-elected, without opposition, in May of 1996 and began to serve another term on January 1, 1997. He was again re-elected, without oppostion, in May of 2002 and began to serve another term on January 1, 2003. He was again re-elected, without opposition in May of 2008 and was sworn in on January 1, 2009.
Circuit Court from 1897 to July 1, 2001
Upon the expiration of Judge J.N. Cypert's term as Circuit Judge, the following judges were elected: M.T. Sanders of Helena, October 30, 1882; Grant Green, Jr. October 30, 1890-1894; H.N. Hutton, October 30, 1894-1914; J.M. Jackson, October 31, 1914-1923; W.D. Davenport, January 1, 1923-1938; E.M. Pipkin, 1939-1947; D.S. Plummer, 1947-1949 (appointed on April 15, 1947 to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Judge Pipkin); and Elmo Taylor, 1949-1974. Judge Taylor resided in White County. Before becoming an attorney he was a court reporter for one of the Circuit Judges. He "read the law" as one could do in those days; was certified by the Circuit Judge that he was "learned in the law"; and was issued a law license. He later served as prosecuting attorney and then ran for Circuit Judge, serving twenty-five years, retiring in 1974. Judge Olman H. Hargraves of Forrest City ran unopposed in 1974 and served from 1975 to 1978 when he retired.
Forrest City Municipal Judge Henry Wilkinson ran in 1978 unopposed for Judge Hargraves' position and served as Circuit Judge of the First Judicial Circuit from January 1, 1978 to December 31, 1994. Judge Wilkinson then served two years as a Circuit Judge at Large for the State of Arkansas and retired on December 31, 1996. Olly Neal of Marianna ran unopposed for Judge Wilkinson's position in 1994 and served from January 1, 1995, until December 31, 1995. Governor Jim Guy Tucker appointed Judge Neal to the Arkansas Court of Appeals, effective January 1, 1996, where he continues to serve. Upon Judge Neal's appointment to the Court of Appeals, Governor Tucker appointed Ashley Higgins of Helena to fill his term until a general election would elect another judge. Judge Higgins served as Circuit Judge, Position 1, from January 1, 1996, to December 31, 1996. L.T. Simes, II, of West Helena, and Sam Whitfield, of Helena, ran for Circuit Judge, Position One, in 1996. Judge Simes won the May Democratic nomination and was unopposed in the November General Election. He began serving on January 1, 1997, and continues to serve to date.
Act 391 of 1971 created a second Circuit Judge Position for the First Judicial Circuit and Governor Dale L. Bumpers appointed O.H. Hargraves on May 4, 1971, to serve until the next general election would elect a judge. John Anderson of Helena was elected unopposed in 1972 and began serving on January 1, 1973. He served until he retired on December 31, 1982. Judge Harvey Yates, who had served as interim Chancellor upon the death of Judge Richard McCullough, ran unopposed in 1982 for Judge Anderson's position and began serving on January 1, 1983. He was re-elected with opposition in May of 1986 and was sworn in on January 1, 1987. He was again re-elected without opposition in May of 1990 and was sworn in on January 1, 1994. He was again re-elected without opposition in May of 1996 and was sworn in on January 1, 1997. He was re-elected, without opposition, in May of 2002 and was sworn in on January 1, 2003. He retired on December 31, 2008. Richard L. Proctor of Wynne and Todd Murray of Helena-West Helena ran for Judge Yate's position (Division Two) in May of 2008. Richard L. Proctor was successful and was sworn in on January 1, 2009.
Juvenile Court from 1989 to July 1, 2001
Prior to 1989, the Juvenile Court system in Arkansas was administered by both the Circuit Judge and the Chancery Judge. The Circuit Judge had jurisdiction over juvenile delinquency and the Chancery and Probate Judge had jurisdiction over paternity, families in need of supervision, and neglect cases. In 1989, the General Assembly enacted the Juvenile Code and provided for the addition of thirty Juvenile Judges for the State. Governor Bill Clinton appointed Kathleen Bell to serve as the Juvenile Judge for the First Judicial Circuit for the year 1990. In 1990, Baird Kinney, of Forrest City, and Jesse "Rusty" E. Porter, Jr., of West Helena, ran for the position. Baird Kinney was successful in the May Democratic Primary and was unopposed in the November General Election. He began serving on January 1, 1991. He retired on December 31, 2008. Ann B. Hudson and Preston G. Hicky, both of Forrest City, ran for Judge Kinney's position (Division Five). Ann B. Hudson was successful in her first judicial race. She was sworn in on January 1, 2009.
Arkansas Court System since July 1, 2001
For many decades, attempts were made to change the Arkansas Judicial System from one in which the Courts of Law and the Courts of Equity were kept separate to one in which law and equity were merged. As stated earlier in this article, Article Seven of the Arkansas State Constitution of 1874 created the Circuit Courts, giving these courts the authority over law and equity. The Constitution gave the Arkansas legislature the authority, "when deemed expedient" to create courts of equity. The first courts of equity were created in 1897. Since that time, Arkansas has maintained separate courts of law and equity. In recent times, the General Assembly has created hybrid judgeships in which the judges were given jurisdiction over both law and equity. Later, the juvenile court system was established thereby creating a larger number of judges with jurisdiction over all matters.
In the mid-1990s the Arkansas Bar Association, the Arkansas Judicial Council, and a host of other organizations embarked upon another attempt to merge law and equity. The campaign efforts were in place for the November, 2000, general election. The people of Arkansas passed Amendment 3 which became Amendment 80 to the Arkansas Constitution. The merger of law and equity became effective on July 1, 2001.
The net effect of Amendment 80 was the creation of a single circuit court in which the court has the authority to try all types of cases. Law and equity were merged into the Circuit Courts. All judges at the trial level were designated as Circuit Judges. All trial judges have the authority to try all types of cases. For case file management purposes, the types of cases are divided into five classifications. Those classifications are: civil, criminal, domestic relations, probate, and juvenile.
All five of the Circuit Judges in the First Judicial Circuit have the authority to try cases in all five classifications. The Arkansas Supreme Court has, by per curiam order, promulgated that each judicial circuit in Arkansas develop a plan for the allocation of work among the judges concerning the various classifications of cases. The judges of the First Judicial Circuit developed a plan which can be found on the Arkansas Judicial Website. The designation as the First Judicial District has now given way to the designation as the First Judicial Circuit of Arkansas.
This short history is not intended to be of historical value to history scholars; but rather an overview of how we arrived at where we are now. Corrections, comments, and additional facts, stories and tales are welcome and will be added to this history. We invite you to send in your stories about how this part of Arkansas "was won."
 Judge Morris Arnold, Colonial Arkansas, 1686-1804: A Social and Cultural History (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1991)
 C.R. Stevenson, Arkansas Territory -- State and Its Highest Courts (Little Rock: Clerk, Supreme Court, 1946.
 Oscar Fendler, The Arkansas Judicial System at the Crossroads, 17 Arkansas Law Review 259.
 Biological History of Eastern Arkansas.