Arkansas Supreme Court Historical Society

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly versionSend by emailSend by emailPDF versionPDF version

Arkansas Courts Historical Background

Originally Compiled by William B. Jones, Jr.


Introduction
 
These tables have been prepared for the benefit of bench and bar and for the convenience of students of Arkansas legal history. Some historical background, gleaned from various sources, may prove useful.
 
History
 
During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, legal authority over the area that would become the State of Arkansas was concentrated in the hands of the French Superior Council, the Spanish Secular Cabildo, or the colonial governor in New Orleans. At Arkansas Post, the judges included a feudal seigneur (Tonty); subordinates of director Jacques Levens (Ménard, Merrick, and Labro); the director of John Law's Arkansas concession (Dufresne du Demaine); and, in most instances, post commandants who exercised civil and criminal jurisdiction.
 
With the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, Arkansas, as a part of the District of Louisiana, was attached to the Territory of Indiana for judicial purposes. Initially, American post commandants continued the colonial practice of military supervision of local legal matters. In 1804, Indiana territorial Governor William Henry Harrison and territorial judges Davis, Griffin, and Vandenberg held court in the District capital of St. Louis and enacted laws for the region. The following year, the name of the District was changed to the Territory of Louisiana, and President Thomas Jefferson made three judicial appointments to the Superior Court.
 
An 1806 act of the territorial legislature created the District of Arkansas. Following the admission of the State of Louisiana in 1812, Arkansas remained a district of the newly named Territory of Missouri, and the Superior Court retained its jurisdiction. On 2 March 1819, President James Monroe approved a congressional act that established a separate Territory of Arkansas and, two days later, appointed three judges to the Arkansas Superior Court. The first sessions were held at Arkansas Post in November 1819 and January 1820. Moving with the territorial capital, the court convened in Little Rock in June 1821, sitting at a Baptist meeting house. Congress added a fourth judge to the panel in 1828.
 
On 15 June 1836, after an all-night congressional debate on the slavery question, President Andrew Jackson signed a bill to admit the State of Arkansas to the Union, effective the Fourth of July. Article VI, Section 1, of the Arkansas Constitution of 1836 vested the judicial power of the State "in one Supreme Court, in Circuit Courts, in County Courts and in Justices of the Peace." Section 2 declared that the Supreme Court would consist of three judges, including a Chief Justice, who would "have appellate jurisdiction only."
 
Although the Reconstruction Constitution of 1868 added two justices, the Constitution of 1874 negated the expansion but stipulated that when the population of the State should "amount to one million, the General Assembly may, if deemed necessary, increase the number of judges of the Supreme Court to five." Ark. Const. art. 7, § 3. That milestone was reached by the end of the next decade, and in Act 19 of 1889, the legislature authorized a total of five justices. Constitutional sanction of the enlargement came in 1924 with voter approval of Amendment 9, which also allowed for the future legislative creation of two additional judgeships. Act 205 of 1925 further increased the number of justices to seven.
 
Amendment 58, approved by voters in 1978, empowered the General Assembly to establish a Court of Appeals "subject to the general superintending control of the Supreme Court." Act 208 of 1979 created the appellate court and provided for six judges to be elected from districts across the state. A panel of judges appointed by Governor Bill Clinton served through 1980, when district elections were held. The court's first published opinions were delivered on 8 August 1979 and were released for publication on 29 August 1979.
 
In Act 1085 of 1993, the legislature provided for the doubling of the number of appellate court judges to twelve. Before the effective date arrived, however, the General Assembly, in Act 11 of the First Extraordinary Session of 1995, repealed certain sections of Act 1085 and staggered the court's expansion. Under the act, three judges were appointed effective 1 January 1996 and another three effective 1 January 1997.
 
Acknowledgements
 
Information on French and Spanish officials was obtained from Morris S. Arnold's Colonial Arkansas, 1686-1804: A Social and Cultural History (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1991) and is reproduced in abridged form with the author's kind permission. Judge Arnold, of the United States Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, also supplied names and dates for the period from 1804 to 1819, and the compiler is grateful for his generous contribution of scholarship and time.
 
Others who provided invaluable assistance include Justice David Newbern of the Arkansas Supreme Court; Rita Cunningham, Chief Staff Attorney of the Arkansas Court of Appeals; Jacqueline S. Wright, Librarian, and Timothy N. Holthoff and Carol Hampton, Assistant Librarians, of the Arkansas Supreme Court Library; Russell P. Baker of the Arkansas History Commission; and Ellen Bard of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies at the Public Library, Little Rock.
 
The following reference works were most helpful: Morris S. Arnold, Unequal Laws Unto a Savage Race: European Legal Traditions in Arkansas, 1686-1836 (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1985); Steve Faris, ed., Historical Report of the Secretary of State: Sesquicentennial Edition 1986 (Little Rock: Secretary of State, 1986); John Gould Fletcher, Arkansas (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1989); Dallas T. Herndon, Annals of Arkansas (Hopkinsville, Ky., and Little Rock: Historical Record Association, 1947); Dallas T. Herndon, Centennial History of Arkansas (Chicago and Little Rock: S.J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1922); C.R. Stevenson, Arkansas Territory--State and Its Highest Courts (Little Rock: Clerk, Supreme Court, 1946).
 
With respect to spelling, I have preferred the frenchified "Tonty" to the more familiar Italian "Tonti" because, as Judge Arnold discovered, La Salle's lieutenant consistently used that form. I have followed early volumes of the Arkansas Reports for the names "Lacy" and "Clendenin."
 
William B. Jones, Jr.
Reporter of Decisions (1995-2006)