Christopher Charles (Chris) Piazza (1947–)
Chris Piazza was a judge in Little Rock (Pulaski County) for thirty years, capping a public service career that also included thirteen years as a prosecutor before he was first elected a Pulaski County circuit judge. Over the course of his years on the bench, he presided over a wide range of cases and was hailed by some and reviled by others for his pioneering decision ruling the state’s ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional.
Christopher Charles Piazza was born on March 3, 1947, to Sam Piazza, who was the oldest child of an Italian immigrant who had arrived in Little Rock in 1903, and Francis Jordan Piazza, a native of Plymouth, England, whom Sam had met while serving in World War II. The Piazza family lived in a home near War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock while Chris was growing up. He played football at Hall High School and earned a football scholarship at Arkansas State College (now Arkansas State University) in Jonesboro (Craighead County). But after his freshman year, he recognized that head injuries did not bode well for his future, and he transferred to Little Rock University (now the University of Arkansas at Little Rock) and then later to the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County), earning a business degree in 1969. There, he also signed up for Officer Candidate School in the U.S. Army.
Upon graduation, in the midst of the Vietnam War, Piazza spent his first four months in the army at Fort Sill in Oklahoma. Transferred to the 7th Army, he was then stationed in Heidelberg, Germany. Piazza spent a year in Germany before returning to Fayetteville, where he used the GI Bill to pay for his pursuit of a law degree.
After finishing law school in 1974 and being admitted to the state bar, Piazza got a job clerking for Arkansas Supreme Court justice Frank Holt, who would be an important mentor to the young lawyer. He followed that in 1975 with a stint as the North Little Rock Police Department’s first legal advisor, and from there he moved to the prosecutor’s office under Lee Munson. In 1985, he became the prosecuting attorney for the Sixth Circuit, a position he held until 1990, when he was elected as the judge for the Sixth Circuit. As first a prosecutor and then a judge, he was in the public eye for over four decades. He earned a reputation as a reformer, with Governor Bill Clinton choosing Piazza in 1987 to lead a panel to draft legislation to overhaul state ethics laws and campaign-finance disclosure regulations.
But it was as a judge that he took center stage, administering justice as he saw it, even when his rulings led to calls for his impeachment. That was what happened in 2014, when Piazza found himself at the center of the battles in Arkansas over same-sex marriage. In May 2014, Piazza overturned a 1997 Arkansas law that banned same-sex marriage. Adding fuel to the culture war fires, he also upended the 2004 amendment to the state constitution that banned marriage between same-sex individuals. In making the ruling, Piazza observed, “Although marriage is not expressly identified as a fundamental right in the Constitution, the United States Supreme Court has repeatedly recognized it as such.” He noted that the 2004 amendment to the state constitution, a provision that was passed overwhelmingly by the state’s voters and that defined marriage as being only between a man and woman, was “an unconstitutional attempt to narrow the definition of equality,” adding, “The exclusion of a minority for no rational reason is a dangerous precedent.” He cited the first human right guaranteed in the Declaration of Rights of the state constitution, dating back to 1836, when Arkansas became a state: the right of every human to the pursuit “of their own happiness.” The Declaration of Independence in 1776 had defined “the pursuit of happiness”—a notion of the English philosopher and founder of modern liberalism John Stuart Mill—as a basic right of every person on the planet along with life and liberty, which came to be recognized in a number of state constitutions as the definition of privacy and individual freedom.
However, his rulings notwithstanding, he declined to issue a stay on the marriage ban but, instead, left it up to the state’s county clerks to decide whether to issue same-sex marriage licenses. But that did not prevent him from being vilified for the decision, with former governor Mike Huckabee and state senator Jason Rapert of Conway (Faulkner County), among others, calling for his impeachment. But while Piazza’s ruling was appealed to the Arkansas Supreme Court, the case was rendered moot with the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 26, 2015, ruling that declared bans on same-sex marriages unconstitutional. But the language of the court’s short per curiam order said that the federal decision had settled all the questions raised in the state’s appeal of Piazza’s ruling—presumably including the question of whether the state constitution’s Declaration of Rights protected the right of same-sex couples to be married—so the court was dismissing the appeal of Piazza’s orders, not the case itself. It left Piazza’s order as the prevailing law in Arkansas should the U.S. Supreme Court ever reverse its 2015 ruling legalizing same-sex marriages everywhere in the country.
For all the attention it received, the same-sex marriage case was not the only highlight of his career. In 2010, Piazza overturned an Arkansas statute that made it illegal for any individuals cohabiting outside of a valid marriage to adopt or provide foster care to minors. That decision was upheld unanimously by the Arkansas Supreme Court in April 2011. In addition, as a prosecutor, he had secured the conviction of Mary Lee Orsini in the conspiracy to murder Alice McArthur, and he also prosecuted his friend Steve Clark, winning a conviction in 1990 for felony theft, an act that occurred while Clark was serving as attorney general.
Piazza and his wife Melody H. Piazza, a Little Rock attorney, have one son.
For additional information:
“Chris Piazza.” Ballotpedia. https://ballotpedia.org/Chris_Piazza (accessed April 12, 2023).
Lynch, John. “Piazza’s Decades of Service Praised.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, December 31, 2020, pp. 1B, 3B. Online at https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2020/dec/31/piazzas-decades-of-service-praised/ (accessed April 12, 2023).
O’Neal, Rachel. “Christopher Charles Piazza.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, August 9, 2015. https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2015/aug/09/christopher-charles-piazza-20150809-1/ (accessed April 12, 2023).
William H. Pruden
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