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Richard B. Adkisson was a prominent figure in the Arkansas legal community in the latter part of the twentieth century. He worked as both a prosecutor and a judge, and he served as chief justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court at the end of his career.
Richard Blanks Adkisson was born on October 12, 1932, to Sam E. Adkisson and Kathleen Blanks Adkisson of Mount Vernon (Faulkner County). He received his early education in the local public schools of Mount Vernon, Conway (Faulkner County), and Russellville (Pope County) before serving in the U.S. Air Force from January 1951 to July 1954. Following his discharge from the air force, he studied at the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County), earning a bachelor’s degree in 1957 and a law degree in 1959.
After less than five years in private practice, Adkisson ventured into the public arena, serving as the chief assistant attorney general from 1963 to 1966, before moving on to the position of prosecuting attorney for the Sixth Judicial Circuit in Little Rock (Pulaski County), serving from 1967 to 1970. Reflective of his liberalism (which would be used against him when he later ran for the state Supreme Court), as prosecuting attorney, Adkisson hired African-American attorney Leon Mays, making him the first full-time black prosecutor in the Sixth Judicial District—and perhaps the state. Adkisson used his record as prosecuting attorney as the foundation for his successful candidacy for a seat on the Pulaski County Circuit Court. First elected in 1970, he won reelection in 1974 and 1978.
In 1980, Adkisson sought election to the position of chief justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court, seeking to fill the remaining four years of a term to which Carleton Harris had been elected in 1978 but that was then held by John Fogelman, who had been appointed after Harris’s death. Adkisson’s February announcement made him the first official candidate.
Basing his campaign on his extensive legal and public service career, while also promising to bring a “common sense interpretation” of the state constitution to his responsibilities, Adkisson also demonstrated some well-honed political instincts. For example, well aware of the distinctive place that football occupied within the state culture, the campaign advertising in his 1980 bid featured a printed endorsement by twenty-seven former Razorback lettermen. Adkisson won the Democratic Party primary before running unopposed in the general election.
Service on the state’s high court did not insulate him from politics, and in 1981, Adkisson found himself the object of allegations from Pulaski County sheriff Tommy Robinson that he and fellow court member John Purtle were closely associated with reputed crime figure Robert Troutt. Robinson asserted that Troutt, who was involved in a case then before the court, had given Adkisson a stolen television set, an allegation the judge easily refuted by producing the receipts.
Over the course of his brief career as chief justice of the court, he wrote sixty-eight opinions. While none broke any new legal ground, his opinions in Earl v. State (1981) and Hill v. State (1982), both of which dealt with appropriate due process protections for the accused in capital cases, as well as his opinion in Becker v. Riviere, a 1982 ruling concerning the proper language on a statewide ballot questions, are his most widely cited efforts.
In January 1984, Adkisson unexpectedly announced that he would be stepping down at the end of the term. In a short statement issued through the court, he announced that he would not seek another term; he said he had family business interests, believed to be a family farm in Faulkner County, that needed attention. He called the decision one of the toughest of his life but said the family interest left him no choice.
Speculation about the reasons for Adkisson’s retirement abounded, including a persistent rumor that attributed his decision to his support for the court’s decision limiting the amount banks could charge consumers on loans, a ruling that did not play well in the business community. This speculation only grew when it was reported in early August that he had checked into the process for receiving his court pension. A few days later, he announced that he would not finish his term, but would in fact resign effective September 1 due to unspecified health reasons. Even Governor Bill Clinton, whose responsibility it was to appoint a successor, said he had received no additional explanation for Adkisson’s early departure from the Court. But on September 1, the long-time jurist stepped down and returned to private practice.
Throughout his career, Adkisson was active in professional circles. He was a member of the Pulaski County, Arkansas, and American Bar associations. In addition to being a member of the American Judges Association and the American Judicature Association, he served on the executive Committee of the Arkansas Judicial Council and the State-Federal Judicial Council. A one-time member of the Board of Directors of the National District Attorney’s Association, he was admitted to practice before the state and federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court. Adkisson also served as the president of the Arkansas Prosecuting Attorneys Association and was a member of the American Legion and Little Rock’s Immanuel Baptist Church.
Adkisson was living in Little Rock when he died on May 18, 2011, from cancer. He was survived by his wife, Kathy King Adkisson, and four daughters. Adkisson is interred in Roselawn Memorial Park.
For additional information:
Brummett, John. “Not Running, Adkisson Says.” Arkansas Gazette, January 7, 1984, p. 1A.
Hanson, Aprille. “Former State Chief Justice Adkisson Dies of Myeloma.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, May 19, 2011, pp. 1B, 8B.
“Judge Announces Candidacy.” Arkansas Democrat, February 17, 1980, p. 22A.
Kennedy, Conway. “Retirement Benefits Sought, Justice Says.” Arkansas Democrat, August 19, 1984, p. 22A.
Obituary of Richard B. Adkisson. Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, May 19, 2011. p. 4B.
William H. Pruden III
Last Updated 9/15/2017
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