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An attorney with a successful career in politics working for Dale Bumpers and Jim Guy Tucker, Robert L. Brown served as associate justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court from 1991 until his retirement in 2012. Brown authored several opinions that changed the landscape of Arkansas history, including the Lake View School District No. 25 v. Huckabee public school lawsuit and U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton, which was affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Robert Laidlaw (Bob) Brown was born in Houston, Texas, on June 30, 1941, to Robert and Katherine Brown; he had two sisters. His father was an Episcopal priest who began his ministry in Harlingen, Texas. Brown began his education in public school at Sanger Elementary School in Waco, Texas. While Brown was in the first grade, his father was called to Richmond, Virginia, to serve as rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. Brown transferred to a private all-boys’ school, St. Christopher’s, where he attended through the eighth grade. In 1955, his father was elected bishop of Arkansas, and Brown transferred again, this time to Forest Heights Junior High School in Little Rock (Pulaski County), where he enrolled in ninth grade and played football. He attended Hall High School, where he continued his football career until his senior year. Following the Central High School desegregation crisis, Little Rock public schools closed, and Brown accepted the invitation of a family friend to attend St. Stephen’s, a coeducational boarding school in Austin, Texas. Brown graduated in 1959.
Brown, elected to Phi Beta Kappa, completed his undergraduate studies at Sewanee, the University of the South, in Tennessee, graduating magna cum laude with a degree in English literature. Brown received a master’s degree in English and comparative literature from Columbia University in 1965, before attending the University of Virginia, where he earned his juris doctorate in 1968.
He met Charlotte Banks, a native of Fordyce (Dallas County), during his senior year of college; the two began dating the following year in New York, where Brown was studying at Columbia after winning a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship for graduate studies and Charlotte was studying at Katharine Gibbs College. They married in 1966. Their only child, a son named Stuart, was born in 1976.
After Brown finished law school, the couple moved back to Little Rock, where Brown began practicing law. During this time, he became involved in local politics, including work on Winthrop Rockefeller’s 1968 campaign for governor.
In 1970, Brown campaigned for Jim Guy Tucker during his successful bid to be the prosecutor for the Sixth Judicial District. After the election, Brown accepted a job as deputy prosecutor under Tucker. In 1972, Brown and Clarence Cash ran Tucker’s successful campaign for attorney general. Following the election, Brown became a legal aide to Governor Dale Bumpers, who was serving his second term as governor. Brown held this position until 1974, when Governor Bumpers was elected to the U.S. Senate. Brown accepted a position as Senator Bumpers’s legislative assistant and moved to Washington DC.
In 1976, Congressman Wilbur Mills announced his retirement and was succeeded by Jim Guy Tucker, who had won the seat in a five-man race. Upon Tucker’s election to the U.S. Congress, Brown accepted a position as Tucker’s staff director.
In 1978, Congressman Tucker lost his race for the U.S. Senate. Brown decided it was time to return to Little Rock, where he started the Harrison and Brown law firm with Fred Harrison. The firm was located in the old Union Life Building in downtown Little Rock, where it was housed until 1985, when Harrison became general counsel for the University of Arkansas. For the next five years, Brown kept the office and remained a solo practitioner.
During this time, Brown also produced a substantial amount of writing. He began writing a novel, served as a contributing editor to the Arkansas Times, and contributed to Arkansas Business. He also wrote for the Arkansas Lawyer, including a significant article on Arkansas Supreme Court justice George Rose Smith. Brown’s work “The Second Crisis of Little Rock,” which examined the state of public education in Little Rock, was published by the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation in 1988.
In 1990, Brown defeated Judge Judith Rogers of the Court of Appeals for Justice Darrell Hickman’s vacancy on the Arkansas Supreme Court. Brown was sworn in to the Arkansas Supreme Court in January 1991, along with fellow newcomer Justice Don Corbin.
Brown served twenty-two years on the Arkansas Supreme Court, authoring several significant opinions. In 1994, Brown authored an opinion that struck down a constitutional amendment imposing term limits on U.S. senators and representatives, finding that the State of Arkansas could not add to the qualifications of members of Congress as described in the U.S. Constitution, only to state elected positions. In 2002, Brown wrote the opinion in the Lake View decision, which found Arkansas’s public school funding system to be unconstitutional, ruling, first, that public education financing could not be based on local property values because this led to inequities and, second, that every child was entitled to an equal education, regardless of local funding capabilities. (Because of these disparities, the education system at the time was deemed inadequate.) In 2011, he wrote the majority opinion declaring that the Arkansas Adoption and Foster Care Act of 2008 placed an unconstitutional burden on the fundamental right of privacy found in the Arkansas Constitution. The act prohibited individuals who cohabitate with a sexual partner outside of marriage from adopting or foster parenting minor children.
In 1999, Brown took the lead in creating the Arkansas Lawyers Assistance Program (ArLAP) to help those in the legal community with addiction and mental health issues. Once the Arkansas Supreme Court approved the program, Brown served as the first Supreme Court Liaison to the group, which would eventually expand services and become the Arkansas Judges and Lawyers Assistance Program (JLAP). In 2010, the program established the Justice Robert L. Brown Community Support Award.
In 2007, he wrote an article advocating for live streaming of Arkansas Supreme Court oral arguments, which led to Arkansas adopting the practice, becoming one of the first states to do so. All Arkansas Supreme Court oral arguments are also archived on its website for public consumption.
In 2010, his book Defining Moments: Historic Decisions by Arkansas Governors from McMath through Huckabee was published by the University of Arkansas Press. The book explored decisions made by ten Arkansas governors, nine of whom Brown knew personally.
In 2012, Justice Brown announced his retirement from the Arkansas Supreme Court, although he continued his involvement in many civic and charitable enterprises. He became known as a strong proponent for judicial independence and a leader in criticizing “dark money,” or untraceable money from outside interest groups, in judicial elections.
In 2013, Justice Brown delivered the Founders’ Day address at his alma mater, Sewanee, where he served on the Board of Regents from 1990 to 1996. He was awarded an honorary Doctor of Civil Law during the convocation.
For additional information:
Dumas, Ernie. Interview with Robert L. Brown. May 7. 2013. Arkansas Supreme Court Project. Arkansas Supreme Court Historical Society. https://courts.arkansas.gov/sites/default/files/oralhistories/Bob%20Brown%20interview.pdf (accessed June 1, 2018).
Brown, Robert L. “From Earl Warren to Wendell Griffen: A Study of Judicial Intimidation and Judicial Self-Restraint.” University of Arkansas at Little Rock Law Review 28 (Fall 2005): 1–18
———. “Just a Matter of Time? Video Cameras at the United States Supreme Court and the State Supreme Courts.” The Journal of Appellate Practice and Process 9 (Spring 2007). Online at https://lawrepository.ualr.edu/appellatepracticeprocess/vol9/iss1/2/ (accessed June 1, 2018).
———. “Non-Partisan Elections.” Arkansas Lawyer 34 (Winter 1999): 12.
Marty E. Sullivan
Little Rock, Arkansas
Last Updated 6/1/2018
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