Printer Friendly

Judge Isaac Parker: a legend hangs on.

ON SEPT. 3, 1875, SIX MEN slowly walked onto the Fort Smith gallows.

As 5,000 people squeezed in to get a closer look, the men's death warrants were announced. Hangman George Maledon placed a rope around each man's neck, tying a knot behind the left eat--a method proven to snap the neck and ease the suffering, according to the book "Let No Guilty Man Escape: A Judicial Biography of 'Hanging Judge' Isaac C. Parker," by Roger H. Tuller.

Then Maledon draped black hoods over their heads and walked to the end of the wooden platform. Within seconds, he grabbed the lever releasing the trap. The men fell five and a half feet, cracking their necks when they stopped, Tuller wrote.

As the men swung freely, the news of the hangings quickly spread across the country, announcing a new era of justice in Arkansas and the West.

The hangings also launched the image of Arkansas' most famous judge, "Hanging Judge" Isaac C. Parker, "as a stern, intractable jurist who remorselessly enforced the law," Tuller wrote.

After the Civil War, Fort Smith marked the last stop for the rule of law before the vast expanse that became known as "the wild West." But Arkansas' relationship with the legal profession was well established by then--the oldest continuously operating business in Arkansas is the 184-year-old Rose Law Firm.

Lawyers were traditionally a large and powerful part of the Arkansas General Assembly, but term limits have reduced the number to 17 of 135 legislators. The most obvious sign of the legal profession's dwindling influence at the Capitol was the passage last year of significant "tort reform" that was opposed by most trial lawyers, especially those who specialize in representing plaintiffs.

The Hanging Judge

Parker was born in a log cabin on Oct. 15, 1838, and grew up on a farm in southeastern Ohio. With an appetite for knowledge, he paid for his higher education by teaching children in a country primary school, according to the Fort Smith National Historic Site, a Web site operated by the National Park Service.

At 17, Parker decided to become an attorney and dived into the study of law.

After passing the bar in 1859, 21-year-old Parker started a law practice in St. Joseph, Mo. He quickly developed a reputation as an honest lawyer.

In the 1860s, he was elected city attorney, and by the end of the decade Parker was a judge for the 12th Missouri Circuit.

With the success of his previous campaigns, Parker decided to run as a Republican for the U.S. House of Representatives, a position he won easily after his opponent withdrew from the race two weeks before the election.

In his second term in office, Parker received national attention for a speech supporting fair treatment of Indians, the Fort Smith National Historic Site said.

But by the end of his second term in 1874, it was time to move on. Thinking he couldn't be elected again because the political winds had shifted back home in Missouri, Parker began lobbying for a presidential appointment to an office.

In March 1875, President Ulysses S. Grant appointed Parker to succeed William Story as federal court judge for the Western District of Arkansas. The bench was vacant because Story had been impeached for bribery.

At the time, crime was rampant in the district, which included the western counties of Arkansas and the Indian Territory, now Oklahoma.

"Desperadoes and criminals from nearly all of the states in the union made life a burden for the Indians and other legitimate residents of the country," according to Parker's obituary in the Fort Smith Elevator in 1896.

On Parker's first court session in May 1875, he sentenced eight men to death. Six of the orders were carried out four months later.

"I did not expect to stay here more than a year or two when I came," Parker said in an interview with the St. Louis Republic in 1896. "But I'm still here, as you can see."

In his 21 years on the bench, Parker handed out 161 death sentences, of which 79 were carried out. The rest either died in prison, escaped, were pardoned or had their sentences overturned.

"People have said to me, 'You are the judge who has hung so many men,' and I always answer: 'It is not I who has hung them. I never hung a man. It is the law,'" Parker said. Under federal law at the time, death sentences were automatic for rape or murder convictions. Only about 2.5 percent of Parker's cases involved capital crimes, even though that became his legend.

Parker said he always informed the grand jury: "Do equal and exact justice.... Permit no innocent man to be punished, but let no guilty man escape."

Newspaper reporters from New York, Boston and Philadelphia descended on Fort Smith to write stories about him and his death sentences, said Fort Smith National Park Ranger Tom Wing.

Parker made an impact on Fort Smith even outside of the courtroom. He urged the federal government to give the city 300 acres of a military reservation to fund a public school system, which it did.

Parker served on the local school board in Fort Smith, making education an important issue for the city, Wing said. He also was the board president of the local hospital, St. John's, which is now Sparks Regional Medical Center.

"He could be classified as a carpetbagger, but he doesn't fit that image," Wing said. "He was such an outreach to the community, very respected."

The St. Louis Republic reported in 1896 that Parker "is the gentlest of men, this alleged sternest of judges."

The reporter who interviewed Parker noted the 58-year-old's frame was that of a powerful man.

"Eight weeks of suffering have not greatly reduced the color that con trasts with his snowy hair and beard ... His blue eyes still have much of the fire of health," the article said.

On Nov. 17, 1896, Parker died at his home in Fort Smith.

Near the end of his life, Parker said, "I am the most misunderstood and misrepresented of men. Misrepresented because misunderstood." Death seemed to compound his image problems. In the 1920% the nickname "Hanging Judge" first appeared. Popular legend--completely untrue, according to the Fort Smith National Historic Site--quoted Parker as ending his death sentences by saying, "Hang by the neck until you are dead, dead, dead."

Books with titles such as "Court of the Damned: Being a Factual Story of the Court of Judge Isaac C. Parker and the Life and "times of the Indian Territory and Old Fort Smith," and "Hell on the Border: He Hanged Eighty-Eight Men" secured Parker's place in popular culture and Arkansas history.

Rose Law Firm

More than 50 years before Parker started handing out death sentences, another Arkansas legal icon was born, the Rose Law Firm in Little Rock.

In late 1820, 22-year-old Robert Crittenden and Chester Ashley, a prominent land speculator, formed a law partnership in the Arkansas Territory, planting the seeds of what would become the Rose Law Firm.

Crittenden and Ashley would become such important figures in Arkansas politics that each would have a county named for him. But their business partnership didn't last long. The firm they founded, however, continued to operate.

In 1865, Uriah M. Rose joined the firm.

Rose's legal career includes being a charter member of the American Bar Association and its president in 1900. His son, George B. Rose, joined the Little Rock partnership in 1881 and practiced until his death at 82.

As one of the largest law firms in Arkansas, Rose Law Firm has been prominent inside the state and within the legal profession for nearly two centuries. Its client roster included the Little Rock School District--until the district decided to resist racial desegregation.

"That's something we've always pointed to in pride," said partner Ron Clark. "That was a long time ago, but it's still lore inside the firm."

In the 1990s, however, Rose became one of the most famous law firms in America--attention that was not entirely welcome--when partner Hillary Rodham Clinton's husband was elected president of the United States.

Rose partners Webb Hubbell, William Kennedy and Vince Foster assumed key positions in the administration as soon as Bill Clinton was sworn in in January 1993, and they and the law firm attracted intense media scrutiny. Six months later, Foster was found dead of a gunshot wound in a Virginia park. His death was ruled a suicide, but it has been the subject of Internet-fueled conspiracy theories and speculation that continue more than a decade later.

The shock of Foster's death was quickly followed by betrayal. In 1994, in a sidelight to the Whitewater investigation, Hubbell pleaded guilty to federal mail fraud charges and tax evasion related to overbilling while he was at the Rose firm. Hubbell admitted stealing some $300,000 from his partners.

The investigation that snared Hubbell also scrutinized Hillary Clinton's work at Rose. Billing records from the firm, which had been the subject of various subpoenas since 1994, mysteriously appeared in her book room in the White House in 1996.

The billing records involved the firm's representation of Jim McDougal's savings and loan, Madison Guaranty, which was tied to the Whitewater investigation.

By the mid-1990s, the oldest law firm west of the Mississippi looked as if it were wheezing and coughing. In 1998, about a dozen lawyers from the firm's securities business left to join the Little Rock office of Kutak Rock of Omaha, Neb.

Still the firm has survived.

"We're glad it's over," Kennedy said. "On the one hand, we thought it was much ado about nothing. On the other hand, we doubt if very many firms in America(could survive),which is tribute to the people here."

Clark said the future looks bright for the firm.

"The firm is pretty stable and has been for 180 years," he said.

"So we'll continue to stay here and service our clients."

Tort Reform

The future for the Rose Law Firm, and every other law practice in the state, will be different thanks to the Civil Justice Reform Act of 2003.

The tort reform act was aimed at reeling in what the state Legislature perceived to be excesses in personal injury lawsuits, which were blamed for the spiraling cost of liability insurance.

Case in point: A 2001 lawsuit against a Mena nursing home resulted in a eye-popping verdict of $78.4 million--$63 million of which was punitive damages.

The verdict became the battle cry for the tort reform movement, even after being reduced to $26 million, $21 million in punitive damages, by the state Supreme Court. The case still stands as the largest tort award in Arkansas history.

Class-action cases will not be affected by the legislation. But the tort reform law includes a new limit on punitive damages of $250,000 or triple the amount of compensatory damages up to $1 million. Punitive damages are rarely awarded in malpractice cases. Such awards are more common in personal injury and product liability cases.

"The law didn't transform Arkansas tort law beyond recognition," said University of Arkansas Law Professor Robert B. Leflar. "There's legislation in other states that are more radical than this. So the fundamentals of most tort cases will remain the same."

The Arkansas Medical Society and the Arkansas Hospital Association, concerned about soaring liability insurance premiums, pushed for the bill. Whether it has worked or will work is still the subject of debate. Attorney Q. Byrum Hurst of Hot Springs, president of the Arkansas Trial Lawyers Association, said he doesn't know of any doctor's medical malpractice insurance rates dropping as a result of tort reform.

But the Arkansas Medical Society believes the law has already had a positive effect.

"We think that we are already seeing some stabilization because we passed tort reform," said David Wroten, assistant executive vice president of the AMS. "We never went into this expecting decreases. What we want to avoid is the 150 percentover-24-months increases."

Hurst said injured Arkansans, not lawyers, have been hurt by the legislation. He thinks the legislation might be repealed by the Legislature because the legislation didn't deliver what it promised, which is lower medical malpractice insurance rates.

Parker's Legacy

Just as it did in Parker's day, the state of Arkansas has grabbed national headlines by enforcing the death penalty.

Since 1976, when the death penalty was reinstated by the U.S. Supreme Court, Arkansas has executed 26 people, more than all but 10 other states.

In 1994 and 1998, the state executed three men in one night. But at the end of Parker's life, he favored abolition of the death penalty--"provided that there is a certainty of punishment, whatever that punishment may be," he said.


* The time bomb that was the state Supreme Court's Lake View decision was still licking as the year ended. Despite having more than a year's notice, a special legislative session that began Dec. 8 was still in session when 2004 arrived, and the Senate and House appeared hopelessly deadlocked over whether to torte consolidation of school districts with fewer than 500 students.

* Retired Army Gen, Wesley Clark, 58, of Little Rock, the former NATO Supreme Commander, officially declared his candidacy for president in September, drawing Wesley Clark renewed national attention to Arkansas. He immediately began campaigning against President George W. Bush's decision to invade Iraq, an action which required the call up of thousands el Arkansas guardsmen and reservists.

* With heavy business lobbying and support on grounds that spiraling "jackpot" jury judgments and insurance coals needed reining, the state Legislature finally passed and Gov Mike Huckabee finally signed the Civil Justice Reform Act of 2003.

* In a year in which many Arkansas banks grew, mostly by acquisition, Walton-owned Arrest Bank of Fayetteville secured its position as the largest bank chartered in Arkansas by buying the Bank el Yellville and publicly traded Superior Financial Corp. of Little Rock, the holding company for Superior Bank of Fort Smith.

* The list el Arkansas public companies dwindled to 24 with the acquisition el Superior Financial the voluntary delisting of Cannon Express of Springdale, the sale of paintball equipment maker Brass Eagle Inc. of Bentonville to K2 Inc. of Carlsbad, Calif., and the disappearance of online retailer PetQuarters Inc. of Sherwood.

* Claims made against the estate of the late M. David Howell Jr. of Little Rock revealed that his Ponzi-like investment scheme had taken in upward of $80 million Court filings also the existence of David Howell Jr. some $28 million worth of on Howell's life.

* Development escalated in the River Market area of downtown Little Rock with the topping out of the William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Museum, Library and Policy Center, groandbreaking on Heifer International's new headquarters and construction of the 14-story First Security

* The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a Kentucky statute requiring insurance carriers to open their networks to "any willing provider" resurrected debate over an almost identical law passed in Arkansas in 1995
COPYRIGHT 2004 Journal Publishing, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2004 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:20 Arkansas Icons
Author:Friedman, Mark
Publication:Arkansas Business
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 15, 2004
Previous Article:Billy Bob Thornton; Arkansan bringing Hollywood home.
Next Article:State Capitol: where politics collide.

Related Articles
Refashioning the fort: new superintendent has some ideas about improving Fort Smith National Historic Site.
Fort Smith hospitals' divergent paths may cross.
Fort Smith launches large development projects.
166 Arkansas businesses have survived more than a century.
Fort Smith gunning for Marshals Museum.
The business of Fort Smith's heritage.
Fort Smith seeks funds for Marshals museum.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters