Justice Jim Hannah served nearly 15 years on the Arkansas Supreme Court and earned rare bipartisan praise for his wisdom and sense of dignity in what is so often an undignified political world. In a period of sharp debates and bitter partisan politics across the state, Hannah became a respected figure for his low-key approach and sense of fairness.
James Robert Hannah was born in Long Beach, California, in the midst of World War II in 1944. His father, a Missouri native and businessman, was serving in the navy, and his wife had accompanied him to California. After the war, the young family returned to Ozark, a small community in Southwest Missouri. The family moved to Harrison around 1960 where the family began operating a bottling company. Hannah graduated from the local high school two years later.
He attended college at the University of Arkansas, where he also received his law degree. After law school, Hannah settled down in Searcy and opened his own law firm. He eventually entered into a partnership with several prominent local attorneys, including Mike Beebe, the future governor. By 1969, he had earned enough respect across Searcy for city officials to name him as city attorney. Several other nearby communities also picked up his services as their city attorney. Gov. Dale Bumpers appointed him to serve on the Board of Pardons and Paroles by the early 1970s, a term that was extended by Gov. David Pryor several years later.
Hannah was appointed as a judge for the juvenile courts in White County in 1976. He won his first judicial election in 1978 for a district that included White, Prairie, and Lonoke counties. Over the next twenty years, he served in a variety of legal capacities. He served as a trial judge and also as a chancery judge, a type of circuit judge focusing on contract matters, and in Hannah’s case, mostly wills and probates. The chancery system in Arkansas was reformed into the modern system of district and appeals courts plus the Supreme Court some time later.
In 2000, Hannah ran for the Arkansas Supreme Court and won a position as associate justice. He was one of seven justices on the state’s highest court. In 2004, with Chief Justice Betty Dickey serving out the remainder of retiring Chief Justice William H. Arnold, Hannah decided to move up. He ran for the position of chief justice and won easily. With the new century, the judiciary was changing quickly, and Hannah was eager to keep up with the times. He moved to make the court’s electronic records of its proceedings the official records rather than written records, and brought cameras into the Supreme Court to broadcast hearings.
He gained respect from judges across the nation and was named president of the Conference of Chief Justices in 2014, an association of the chief justices of each state supreme court in the nation. President Barack Obama appointed him to chair the board of directors of the State Justice Institute while John Roberts, Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, appointed him to chair the Judicial Conference Committee on State-Federal Jurisdiction.
As the political climate of Arkansas shifted, increasing numbers of divisions appeared among the justices, not only on important case rulings but also how the Supreme Court would be run. Though all Arkansas judges are elected on a non-partisan basis, party allegiances and biases became apparent. Despite the infighting on the court that became increasingly reported in newspapers, Hannah refused to make these issues public. He respected the right of justices to confer and even argue among themselves to preserve the dignity of the court.
By 2015, Hannah was growing increasingly ill. He was considering running for another term in 2016, but it was not to be. His health forced him to retire in September 2015, and he died four months later.
Dr. Ken Bridges is a professor of history and geography at South Arkansas Community College in El Dorado and a resident historian for the South Arkansas Historical Preservation Society. Bridges can be reached by email at kbridges@ southark.edu.