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North Arkansas College Foundation - "Harrison Still Feels Like Home for Chief Justice Jim Hannah"

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Location: Little Rock, AR


North Arkansas College Foundation - "Harrison Still Feels Like Home for Chief Justice Jim Hannah"

Living in Harrison prepared Chief Justice Jim Hannah of the Arkansas Supreme Court well for his life and distinguished legal career.

"Arkansas is a unique place," he says. "Other places just don't offer the opportunities we have here. You can be whatever you want to be—whatever you're willing to work for."

But moving from Ozark, Missouri, to Harrison right in the middle of high school required some adjustments for Hannah.

"It was a difficult thing," he says now. "I was playing on an undefeated high school basketball team. All of my friends were there. In fact, I didn't immediately move with my parents. I stayed with my grandparents, so I could finish my sophomore year."

After Hannah arrived in Harrison, however, it didn't take long for this side of the state line to seem like home. "People accepted me like I had been there forever," he recalls. "I still remember friends like John Banks taking me under their wing."

Fast forward 48 years, and Chief Justice Hannah will return home to Harrison, where his parents Frank and Virginia Hannah still live, May 9 to receive the Ozarks Ambassador Award from the North Arkansas College Foundation. He also will speak to Northark's graduates the next morning at the college's 2008 Commencement.

Education and athletics each have played important roles in Hannah's highly successful life. During his two years at Harrison High School, he excelled as a student-athlete, playing on two great basketball teams under Hall of Fame Coach Bob Denniston.

"We lost in the finals of the state tournament my junior year to Helena," he remembers. "They had Ken Hatfield and Billy Gray. Hatfield got hot in the first half, and they stalled the ball after halftime."

Along with Denniston, Hannah remembers the late Verlin Breedlove, who went on to serve as Bergman's superintendent of schools, and the late Leon Blackwood, who finished his career as an administrator at Northark, as teachers he admired during his days at Harrison High School.

Hannah, who also played baseball for the Goblins, left Harrison planning to teach and coach.

"I went to Drury in Spring-field [Mo.] to play basketball and be a coach," he says. "But I got married and transferred to the University of Arkansas. I decided to change my major to accounting and go on to law school. I thought the combination of the two, finance and law, would be a good back-ground for a career."

After graduating from law school in Fayetteville, Hannah had an offer to go to work in St. Louis for a national accounting firm. But he decided instead to join a private law practice in a small Arkansas town. Harrison wasn't an option because his father-in-law at the time was the local judge, so he chose Searcy in White County.

"I never had any inclination or desire to be a judge," he remembers. "With my background in accounting, I thought my practice would fo-cus on estate planning and tax law. But general practice in a small town includes all aspects of the law."

A change in how small town city courts were organized in Arkansas also affected Hannah's career. A court ruling prohibited local mayors from continuing to serve as the judge in municipal courts where a significant portion of revenue came from traffic fines, due to the conflict of interest.
Hannah was hired as city judge in nearby towns like Kensett and Rosebud. He eventually became city attorney for Augusta, Bradford, Des Arc, Garner, Kensett, and Rosebud. He was Searcy's city attorney for nearly a decade, and was deputy prosecuting attorney for Woodruff County.

A partner in the Lightle, Tedder, Hannah & Beebe Law Firm, Hannah also taught business law for Harding University and was a faculty advisor for the National Judicial College. After securing a grant, he established and implemented the White County Juvenile Court and Juvenile Probation Office, served as White County Juvenile Judge from 1976 to 1978, and says his interest in a career as a judge "began to grow."

In 1978 Arkansas underwent judicial redistricting and an opening was created in the 17th Judicial District for White, Lonoke, and Prairie counties. "When an opportunity comes along, you've got to walk through the door," Hannah says. And that's what he did.

He ran for circuit judge, was elected, and served for 22 years. When an opening on the Arkansas Supreme Court came along, "I was ready for a change and ran for the position," he says.

One of his first endorsements came from an old friend, the late J.E. Dunlap, Jr., the legendary publisher of the Harrison Daily Times. "He wrote the first article endorsing me," Hannah says, "and he mentioned my career as a Harrison Goblin. My wife asked me, ‘What does playing basketball have to do with being on the Supreme Court?' My reply was: ‘You just don't understand.'"

Hannah was elected to the state's highest court. He served as an associate justice in position five from 2001-2004, and was elected Chief Justice in 2005. As Chief Justice, he is responsible for the administrative duties of the Supreme Court, which has superintending control over all of the state's courts, including rule-making authority and supervision of the state budget for the courts.

"I thought it was important for the Chief Justice to have experience serving at every level," he points out.

What does Hannah like about his job?

"We get the cases with issues that have never been decided before," Chief Justice Hannah says, "but there are lots of things we're able to do other than just make decisions."

He cites providing access to justice without regard to financial ability, offering interpreter services for people who can't speak or under-stand English, ensuring services for the hearing for the hearing impaired, implementing electronic filing, and, an issue that has long been close to his heart, stream-lining decisions in cases involv-ing children.

"The Court of Appeals hears foster care cases for adoptions. We can and do review those cases," he explains. "The aver-age time in those cases was 20 months, and sometimes was as long as four years, and that was unreasonable. During that time, the child is in limbo. You have to look at these cases through the eyes of a child."

At Hannah's urging, the Court has cut the average time for termination of parental rights cases to six or seven months. In fact, appeals in all cases move quicker in Arkansas than almost any other state. "Our trial judges are doing a great job," Hannah explains. "The problem was in the appeals."

As Chief Justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court, Hannah is active in the Conference of Chief Justices, the national association of chief justices of state supreme courts and territories. Given his interest in issues re-lated to young people, it isn't surprising that he has served on the Conference of Chief Justices' board and as chairman and co-chair of the Family and Children's Committee.

Between them, Hannah and his wife, Pat, have five children, 11 grandchildren, and one great grandson. Still a member of the Presbyterian Church, he recalls how important the people of the First Presbyterian Church in Harrison were to him and his family as newcomers to Boone County.
"Harrison will always be home to me," he says. "The people, the opportunities they gave me, and the role models I had meant a lot."
It's nice to be acknowledged for your accomplishments and work, he says of the Ozarks Am-bassador Award, "but it's a very special honor to be recognized in your hometown, where you grew up. It's very humbling."

Chief Justice Hannah believes a lot of his values are rooted in his formative days in the Ozarks. "Individual rights, honoring other people's thoughts and ideas without being critical of them—a lot of that comes from the culture I grew up in," he reflects.

"Most of my other relatives live in Christian County in Missouri," Hannah says with a smile, "but you couldn't blast my parents out of Boone County now. That's home!"


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