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Bernice Lichty Parker Kizer was a lawyer and a path-breaking state legislator and judge in Arkansas in the second half of the twentieth century. After almost fifteen years in the Arkansas General Assembly, Kizer stepped down to seek election as a probate judge. Her subsequent victory made her the first woman in state history to be elected to a judgeship.
Bernice Lichty was born on August 14, 1915, in Fort Smith (Sebastian County) to E. C. Lichty and Opal Lichty. She graduated from Fort Smith High School in 1932 and worked for two years as a grocery checker at Fort Smith’s first self-serve grocery store in order to save money for college. She initially attended Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri, where she also waited tables to make extra money. She soon transferred to the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County), from which she graduated in 1937. After graduation, she married James Mayne Parker, and the couple ultimately had three children. While her husband was overseas serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II, Parker attended the University of Arkansas School of Law.
Parker was one of the first five women to be enrolled in the University of Arkansas Law School, graduating in the school’s class of 1945. When her husband returned from the war, she focused on raising their family. However, after the death of her husband in 1955, with a family to support, she returned to the law, beginning to practice in 1957. Two years later, in 1959, she married Harlan Kizer. That same year, she entered the political arena. Running as a Democrat, Bernice Kizer won election to a first term in the Arkansas House of Representatives, launching what proved to be a long and productive tenure as a state representative.
Over the course of a legislative career that spanned from 1959 to 1973, Kizer achieved many milestones. She chaired the House Labor Committee, becoming the first woman in state annals to chair a legislative committee, and she was also the first woman on the Arkansas Legislative Council. During her time in the legislature, Kizer also served as vice chair of the Joint Budget Committee, as well as serving as a member of the House Rules Committee, the House Savings and Loan Committee, and the House Banking Committee. Kizer was known as an advocate for expanded and upgraded highways, and she helped lead the effort to establish a law school in Little Rock (Pulaski County)—now the University of Arkansas at Little Rock William H. Bowen School of Law.
In 1973, Kizer left the House to run for the position of chancery/probate judge in the state’s Twelfth Judicial District. With this, she became the first woman in the history of Arkansas elected to a judgeship. Here, too, Kizer would make her mark, overseeing numerous custody and family law cases during a period of changing legal assumptions concerning the roles and rights of men and women. She served on the bench from 1974 until retiring in 1986. However, that retirement was short-lived, as she won election to the Fort Smith Board of Directors, on which she served from 1988 to 1992. She also continued to serve as judge on assignment.
Kizer was a longtime member of the Arkansas Bar Association and was admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court. In addition, she served on the board of trustees of Cottey College in Nevada, Missouri, as well as on the Governor’s Commission on the Status of Women and the Governor’s Commission for Aging. Her husband, Harlan Kizer, died in 1996, and Bernice Kizer lived in Fort Smith until her death on January 16, 2006. She is buried in Saint John’s Episcopal Church Columbarium in Fort Smith.
For additional information:“In Memoriam: Judge Bernice Lichty Kizer.” Arkansas Lawyer 41 (Spring 2006): 49. Online at: http://issuu.com/arkansas_bar_association/docs/vol_41_no_2_spring_2006/54 (accessed April 5, 2016).
“Judge to Speak at Cottey.” Nevada (MO) Daily Mail, May14, 1978, p. 8. Online at: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1908&dat=19780514&id=0UQrAAAAIBAJ&sjid=PJ8FAAAAIBAJ&pg=2181,3197284&hl=en (accessed April 5, 2016).
Woodworth, Hillary. “Family Came First for Judicial Pioneer.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, January 19, 2006, 7B.
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Last Updated 4/13/2016
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