Carleton Harris (1909–1980)

Carleton Harris was a lawyer and politician who was chief justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court during a tumultuous period in Arkansas political and judicial history. When he was elected to the court in 1956, Harris was the youngest chief justice in the nation; he served in the position for twenty-three years, longer than any other Arkansan except Griffin Smith, whose seat he filled upon the judge’s death. He was elected three times to the Arkansas House of Representatives, first when he was twenty-two years old, and he was elected to one term as prosecuting attorney, to eight years on the chancery bench, and to all or parts of four terms on the Arkansas Supreme Court.

Frank Carleton Harris, who went by his middle name, was born on December 31, 1909, in Pine Bluff (Jefferson County), the son of Frank Alexander Harris and Ada Rogers Harris. He attended Pine Bluff public schools; had prelaw training at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee, a private Christian school; and received a law degree at Cumberland University in Lebanon, Tennessee. Within two weeks of graduation in 1932, he announced that he was running for the Arkansas House of Representatives from Jefferson County. He was elected and went on to win two more terms without opposition. He married Marjorie Allison Wilson of Pine Bluff in 1934.

At the end of his life, Harris said his proudest achievement was the passage of a law in his third term in the legislature that ended the county ad-valorem tax that paid for the Pine Bluff Free Bridge over the Arkansas River. He said it was the most unfair tax ever levied. The Pine Bluff bridge was built in 1915 and—like other “free” bridges at the time in Fort Smith (Sebastian County), Little Rock (Pulaski County), and other places—it was free of tolls, but county residents had to pay a stiff annual tax to retire the bridge bonds and to maintain the bridge and approaches. Governor Carl Bailey vetoed the bill in 1937 when Harris, by then chairman of the House Judiciary Committee at the age of twenty-six, pushed it through the legislature. But Harris introduced it again at a special session, and Bailey signed it into law. The act ended bridge taxes in all the cities, made them all part of the state highway system, and transferred the obligation to maintain the bridges to the state.

Although he held political offices for forty-seven years, Harris practiced law in Pine Bluff until he became a chancery judge. He was an assistant prosecuting attorney in the Eleventh Judicial District until he was elected prosecutor in 1946 without opposition. He served one term and was elected judge of the Fourth Chancery District, serving eight years until Chief Justice Griffin Smith died. Harris ran to finish Smith’s term in 1956 and was elected, just as the state was entering a period of intense political conflict over the desegregation of schools and other public facilities. The great volume of litigation that followed generally consumed the federal courts, but also sometimes the state courts. Harris was a peacemaker who sought to bridge political differences and produce something close to a consensus among the elected justices.

An editorial in the Arkansas Gazette two days after Harris’s death described his role thusly: “Arkansas was fortunate, perhaps even lucky considering our way of electing judges on a partisan basis, to have had Carleton Harris as chief justice from 1957 to 1980. With occasional aberrations, certainly rarer than with the other branches of state government, the Supreme Court during that period was a bulwark of integrity. The Court reflected the qualities of its rigidly proper and hard-working chief. It was not an intellectual force, but it demonstrated a workmanlike mastery of law, and if it showed any decided ideological propensity it was in favor of the worker, the claimant.”

When the state’s attorney general, Bruce Bennett, a rabid segregationist, and Governor Orval E. Faubus wrote a passel of segregation bills for a special session of the legislature in 1958, during a standoff between Faubus and the federal government over the desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock, the legislature passed sixteen of them almost in lockstep. Several of them were directed at punishing or circumscribing groups, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Arkansas Council on Human Relations, that sought to integrate the schools and other facilities. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down the most notorious law, Act 10, which required state employees, including college teachers, to sign a loyalty oath and list their political affiliations. It was intended to root out members of the NAACP.

The NAACP initiated a suit in state court against four of the Bennett laws that sought to “throw consternation into the ranks” of the NAACP, as Bennett described it. When the case finally reached the Arkansas Supreme Court in 1963, the justices struck them down by a vote of 4–2 as violations of the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution (Bennett, Atty. General v. N.A.A.C.P. 236 Ark. 750, 1963). Harris arranged for the majority opinion to be written by the court’s most rigid conservative, Ed F. McFaddin, who earlier had written an opinion upholding the “Bennett ordinances” enacted by several cities under one of the 1958 laws. McFaddin wrote that the U.S. Supreme Court obviously would declare the four acts unconstitutional.

Two judges, Jim Johnson and specially assigned judge Boyd Tackett of Texarkana (Miller County), a former congressman, dissented. Tackett, sitting for a justice who disqualified himself in the case, used his dissent to rant against the U.S. Supreme Court. Johnson joined Tackett’s dissent and three years later left the court and to run for governor and then the U.S. Senate. In 1976, Johnson, running as “Justice Jim Johnson,” opposed Harris for his fourth term as chief justice. Harris won with fifty-six percent of the vote and then retired three years later when he underwent surgery for cancer.

In 1972, Harris delivered a majority opinion in a suit with strong racial implications (Tucker v. Pulaski Federal Savings & Loan Association, 481 S.W. 2d 275). A white couple bought a three-apartment complex on the south side of Little Rock, lived in one of the apartments, and rented the other two. When African Americans began to move into the neighborhood, the couple was unable to rent the other two apartments and sold the complex to a black couple. Pulaski Federal, which held the mortgage note, refused to accept the black couple as the owners and sued the owners, demanding full immediate payment of the $20,243.18 balance on the note, lawyers’ fees, and full possession of the apartments. The mortgage company’s claim that, under state law, it could refuse to accept the transfer of the property to a black couple and then demand full immediate payment or possession of the apartments “cannot be countenanced” in a court of equity, Harris wrote.

One aberration in Harris’s insistence that the court should bridge political turmoil was the state’s first creation science lawsuit. A lawsuit filed on behalf of biology teacher Susan Epperson at Central High School in 1965 challenged the state’s 1928 initiated act forbidding the teaching of the theory of evolution in public school classrooms. A Pulaski County chancery judge, Murray O. Reed, ruled that the law violated the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution, and the appeal reached the Arkansas Supreme Court in May 1966. Harris, a deeply religious man, was a lay leader of the Baptist church. He feared a tumultuous public reaction to the court’s action if it upheld Judge Reed. The Gazette described his role this way: “The Court wrestled with the case for a year as the chief sought to bring the justices to a consensus,” rather than upholding the law four to three, as the justices divided in private conference. “Worried about public reaction but unable to achieve the unity Harris sought, the Court finally issued a strange unsigned order reversing the lower court’s decision but giving no reasons whatever in support of the order other than the state’s power to supervise the curricula of schools.” Only one justice, Lyle Brown, registered his dissent. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the decision (Epperson v. Arkansas, 393 U.S. 97, 1968) and seemed to rebuke the Arkansas court.

Harris and his wife had a son, Eugene “Kayo” Harris, who also became a chancery judge. He ran to replace his father in 1980 and was defeated by Richard B. Adkisson.

Harris died December 21, 1980. He is buried in Graceland Cemetery in Pine Bluff.

For additional information:
“Carleton Harris.” Arkansas Gazette, December 23, 1980, p. 10A.

“Former Justice Dies at Age 70.” Arkansas Gazette, December 22, 1980, pp. 1A–2A.

Ernest Dumas
Little Rock, Arkansas

Last Updated: 08/12/2020