Arkansas Democrat Gazette - Reversals of Judges' Rulings Tallied
In the course of a trial, a judge makes rulings, perhaps many of them, any one of which could become an issue if a party in the case appeals the outcome to a higher court. Being appealed is a fact of judges' lives, and sometimes they get reversed.
"Nobody likes to be reversed," said Arkansas Chief Justice Jim Hannah, who experienced some reversals himself before he was elected to the state's top court.
An analysis by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette of more than 5, 700 appellate decisions from 1997-2007 involving the state's 118 circuit judges has produced information the state doesn't keep how often decisions by trial judges hold up on review.
A reversal record is not the sole criterion of a quality judge.
A good judge has integrity, impartiality and diligence, qualities that the Arkansas judicial canons call for. And others cite common sense, courtesy and clarity of thought.
Unlike the other qualities, a reversal rate is measurable, something that can be stated statistically, as shown in a chart accompanying this article.
The analysis showed that on average, Arkansas' circuit judges are affirmed 80 percent of the time.
Some judges are rarely reversed.
Some have been reversed about half the time.
How much significance to attach to a reversal rate isn't a settled point.
Sen. Shawn Womack, RMountain Home, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and now a candidate in a runoff for a circuit judgeship, said that if a judge is "being reversed a lot, you might have to question whether or not that person is uniformly applying the law the way it is intended." A circuit judge, Vicki Cook of Hot Springs, said reversals are not "a total litmus test of being a good or bad judge." "I do think it's one factor when you are trying to decide if you have someone who is fair and knows the law," she said.
Comparing reversal records may be complicated because judges handle different kinds of cases. Some handle only juvenile cases, which are rarely appealed. Others handle mostly criminal cases, which are appealed more frequently. Civil cases generally are appealed only if a client can afford it or the lawyers feel an error at the trial level was clear.
"Numbers don't tell the whole story," said Justice Robert L. Brown of the state Supreme Court.
Womack points out that lawyers in districts far from Little Rock may be less likely to appeal because of the time involved in driving to the Supreme Court.
Didi Sallings, director of the Arkansas Public Defender Commission, said some prosecutors are more likely than others to offer plea bargains, and that greatly reduces appeals in certain districts.
Retired Justice David Newbern said it could be counterproductive to the justices to know how often each judge was affirmed and reversed when the justices review appeals.
Newbern said it's up to the local bar groups to keep up whether judges get reversed too often, and if so, to challenge them at election time.
But lawyers usually avoid challenging judges they practice before. In the May 20 election, two sitting circuit judges were defeated: John Thomas of Arkadelphia and Alan Epley of Berryville. Before that, the 1998 election year was the last in which a sitting circuit judge was defeated in Arkansas.
Some Supreme Court justices and Court of Appeals judges know what it's like to be told they were wrong by a higher court.
Five of the nine Supreme Court justices and four of the 12 Court of Appeals judges previously served as trial judges.
Here are their appeal statistics: Hannah, 17 th District juvenile and chancery judge, 1975 to 2000, 78 affirmed of 104 total appeals. Justice Jim Gunter, 8 th District circuit-chancery judge, 1983-2004, 104 of 131. Justice Paul Danielson, 15 th District circuit judge, 1996-2006, 81 of 95. Justice Annabelle Clinton Imber, 6 th District chancery judge, 1989-96, 38 of 48 decisions. Justice Tom Glaze, 6 th District chancery judge, 1979-80, nine of 15.
Judge John Robbins, 18 th District chancery judge, 1985-92, 30 of 35 decisions.
Judge John Pittman, 1 st District chancery judge, 1981-92, 50 of 63 decisions. Judge Karen Baker, 20 th District circuit-chancery judge, 1997-2000, 33 of 38 decisions. Judge Sam Bird, 10 th District circuit-chancery judge, 1991-96, 12 of 14 decisions.