Plaintiffs in a lawsuit that could force the state to change how state Supreme Court justices are elected concluded their case Thursday in federal court with testimony from a former Supreme Court justice. appeal who was the lead plaintiff in a landmark 1992 voting rights case.
Former Court of Appeals Judge Eugene Hunt testified about his experiences as a young black law student and the challenges of building a black law firm in the 1970s and 1980s.
State Senator Joyce Elliott also spoke of her experiences as one of the few black female students who were at the forefront of integration in Nevada County, as a teacher and later as a legislator in the General Assembly.
The lawsuit, brought by a coalition of cabinet ministers, community activists and voters challenges the impacts of judicial elections on black voters, particularly Supreme Court elections which plaintiffs say prevent black voters from electing a black candidate for the High Court.
If successful, the deal could result in the creation of a single majority-minority district for electing judges to the Supreme Court of Arkansas and two majority-minority districts for electing justices of the State Court of Appeals. Currently, all Supreme Court justices are elected at-large, and one Court of Appeals district is designated a majority-minority district.
The defendants in the lawsuit are Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, Secretary of State John Thurston and Attorney General Leslie Rutledge. They include the State Allocation Council and are represented by attorneys from Rutledge’s office.
Plaintiffs are represented by attorneys from the NAACP Legal Defense & Education Fund as well as private attorneys from New York, Washington, DC and Little Rock.
The case is being heard by U.S. District Judge James M. Moody Jr.
Hunt, who lives in Pine Bluff and practices law there, was appointed by former Governor Mike Beebe to the seat of the District 7 Court of Appeals – currently held by Court of Appeals Judge Waymond Brown – in 2008 to serve the unexpired term of U.S. District Judge Brian Miller, who was appointed to the federal bench by former President George W. Bush.
Hunt ran for the seat later that year, but was defeated by Brown. Brown testified Wednesday about his experiences with racism as a black lawyer and later judge.
Hunt was the lead plaintiff in the 1990 Hunt lawsuit against the State of Arkansas which resulted in a consent decree in which the state agreed to create eight circuit court subdistricts in which the majority of voters were black. This consent decree gave black candidates the opportunity to mount credible campaigns for the positions of trial court judge.
He testified that while at the University of Arkansas Law School in 1969, he worked full-time to enroll in the school, a practice he said was discouraged by the dean, but Hunt said that with few resources, he had no other options.
“I asked him if he had an extra room in his house and that ended that investigation,” Hunt said.
Hunt also told a story from his early days in the practice of law in which he said a judge ordered him to pay $600 to reimburse the court for the costs of appointing a jury in a case settled the day he had to be judged.
“Was it a white judge? asked Michael Skocpol, attorney for the NAACP Legal and Educational Fund.
“There were no black judges back then,” Hunt said quietly.
Hunt said he first wrote a letter to the judge and then went to his office after receiving no response.
“There was a very short discussion about the issue and the judge kind of got pissed off,” Hunt said. “He lost it.”
“Lost his temper?” Moody asked from the bench. “When you say he lost his mind, do you mean he lost his temper?”
“I would say he got angry,” Hunt said. “He walked around his office and came after me.”
While telling the story, Hunt briefly lost his temper, his voice cracking and his eyes filling with tears.
“I ran out of the room,” he said. “I wasn’t going to hit the judge so I ran out of the room and stopped in the hallway because he had no jurisdiction in the hallway.”
Hunt said that while it was the most egregious example, it was not the only time he had been subjected to harsh treatment from judges or other lawyers.
Following the Hunt executive order, he said doors had begun to open for black judicial candidates in state trial courts with the formation of black-majority sub-districts, but said opportunities in other districts were limited or non-existent. When asked if he would ever consider running for a statewide judicial seat, presumably for the Supreme Court, Hunt said no.
“Not in the current environment,” he said. “Trying to operate in an at-large system would be a complete waste of money.”
Elliott, who was among the first group of students to enter the white high school in his hometown of Willisville in 1966, said there were a number of inequities in the way it was accomplished.
“We were told that black kids were going to be the ones to bear the burden of going to white schools, but not the other way around,” she said.
As a child in the 1950s, Elliott said, she remembered hearing her parents and other adults talking quietly about voting.
“They were afraid to talk about it out loud,” she said. “The first time I heard the word poll taxes I had no idea what it was, but I could tell by their voices it was a scary thing.”
Elliott said that at her old school, she was on track to be the school valedictorian, a goal she said she had been working toward since fourth grade. But at her new school, she says, “it was pretty clear that those plans were being shattered.”
She said officials at her new school called her into the office to discuss her transcript from her old high school.
“I was happy because I knew it was a good transcript, but they weren’t there for a good reason,” Elliott said, but instead said the principal and superintendent challenged the how she got the grades. She said the principal told her she “wouldn’t get those n****r grades in my school.”
But it’s those experiences, she said, that are attributed to her passion for civil rights.
Both Hunt and Elliott said the current system for electing Supreme Court justices not only denies black candidates the opportunity to run for court, but also prevents black people from seeing anything. of themselves reflected in the courtyard.
Following Elliott’s testimony, the plaintiffs closed their case. The trial resumes Monday with testimony from John Alford, a political science professor at Rice University, who testifies for the defendants.