Conley F Byrd (1925–2014)

Conley F Byrd Sr. was a sharecroppers’ son from northeastern Arkansas who, after World War II, became a lawyer and a justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court. He proved to be a maverick on the court by dissenting often, and he frustrated some members of the elite court with his obstinacy. Injuries from vehicle accidents left him in so much pain that he retired in 1980 and spent the last thirty-four years of his life farming in the woods east of Redfield (Jefferson County).

Conley F Byrd (he had no middle name, just the initial) was born on January 14, 1925, in Poughkeepsie (Sharp County). His parents, Robert Lee Byrd and Artie Elizabeth Barnes Byrd, were sharecroppers. They lived in Mississippi County for a while, but the family returned to Sharp County near Evening Shade after his oldest sister died of malaria. There they raised cotton to sell and grew vegetables, kept milk cows, and raised chickens and hogs. He began picking cotton when he was six years old, though he said he was never as good at it as his siblings because his reflexes were slow. He graduated from high school at Poughkeepsie in 1943. He would later claim to have read every book in the library except Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. He had no interest in reading it, he said at the age of eighty-seven, because “it was about crazy people, and I put up with enough of them.”

Immediately after high school, he entered the U.S. Navy. He was sent to radar school in Hawaii and spent the rest of World War II in the South Pacific. Most of his time there was aboard the destroyer escort USS Harold C. Thomas, which protected convoys from Japanese submarines and aircraft. He lost much of his hearing when a “three-incher” gun on the ship was fired a few feet above his head. He was near the Eniwetok atoll south of Japan when the atomic bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Byrd attended Arkansas State College (later Arkansas State University) in Jonesboro (Craighead County) and Arkansas State Teachers College (later the University of Central Arkansas) in Conway (Faulkner County) a year each, and then enrolled at the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County). There, he married Frances Hardin. They had four children.

After receiving a law degree and his law license in 1950, he moved to Evening Shade near his childhood home, bought a milk cow at an auction, and opened a law office. Unable to make a living, he asked U.S. Representative Wilbur D. Mills to find him a job. Mills arranged a job for him as a lawyer in the Wage and Hour Division of the U.S. Labor Department in Washington DC. An executive of the Babcock & Wilcox Company, a national power-generation company, whom he met on an airplane, offered him a job with the company in Barberton, Ohio. After a year, a family friend from Batesville (Independence County), Justice Paul Ward of the Supreme Court, helped him attain the position of assistant attorney for the state’s revenue department at Little Rock (Pulaski County). The judge arranged another job for Byrd, preparing head notes for Supreme Court decisions and supervising the printing of Supreme Court Reports, the record of all the court’s decisions. The job paid $150 a month, and his wife was paid $125 as his secretary.

In 1954, he developed tuberculosis and entered the Arkansas State Tuberculosis Sanatorium at Booneville (Logan County), where he was put on a new drug, streptomycin, that soon banished the disease. He was a law clerk briefly for U.S. District Judge Gordon Young and then joined a law firm with Omar Greene and Bill Butler at Little Rock. His work consisted mainly of real estate and domestic matters.

When Justice Frank Holt resigned from the Arkansas Supreme Court in 1966 to run for governor, Justice Ward urged Byrd to run for the office to complete Holt’s term. Bruce T. Bullion of Little Rock, president of the Arkansas Bar Association, filed for the position, driving other aspirants from the race. Byrd filed and campaigned around the state sporting the cowboy boots and Stetson hat that were his lifelong trademarks. He said he spent $10,556, all his own money. He bested Bullion in 1966, approximately 173,000 votes to Bullion’s 164,000; he was re-elected without opposition in 1972.

On the court, Byrd was a conservative voice. He was reluctant to overturn statutes or criminal convictions on constitutional grounds. In the most famous case during his period of service, months after joining the court, he voted with the six-member majority in upholding a 1928 statute enacted by the voters that prohibited the teaching of human evolution in the public schools. The case (Epperson v. Arkansas) caused a long and bitter division on the court. Late in life, he would say simply that it was a tough case. The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously reversed the state court and held the law to be a violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Byrd was far more often found on the losing side on appeals. Each year, he wrote more dissenting opinions—each one concise—than any other justice. There were often rumors of exasperation by other justices (particularly the long-serving George Rose Smith), with Byrd’s hardheaded refusal to yield to persuasion. Byrd related the tale of an argument in chambers over warrantless searches in which Justice Smith “gave me a barnyard cussing.” Two justices jumped up to prevent a fight between the men. But Smith and Byrd remained friends. Byrd brought Smith fresh vegetables and once had his son kill a skunk on the family farm near Redfield and deliver it to the Little Rock home of Justice Smith, who had expressed a wish to stuff and mount a skunk. Smith subsequently gave up on the project.

A series of car accidents involving rear-end collisions left Byrd with so much back pain that he read briefs and wrote his opinions standing up. In 1980, he said he could not run again and was persuaded to retire on disability. Governor Bill Clinton appointed Richard L. Mays, a black civil rights lawyer, to his seat. He continued to live on his farm east of Redfield, practiced law on occasion, and helped his wife publish a weekly newspaper in the community. He died on July 19, 2014, and is buried in Redfield Cemetery.

For additional information:
“Interview with Justice Conley F Byrd.” Arkansas Supreme Court Project. Arkansas Supreme Court Historical Society. https://courts.arkansas.gov/sites/default/files/oralhistories/Conley%20Byrd%20Interview.pdf (accessed August 31, 2016).

King, Ray. “Justice Conley Byrd Sr. Remembered.” Pine Bluff Commercial, July 21, 2014, p. 1.

West, Holly. “Ex-Justice Noted for Love of People.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, July 21, 2014, p. 2B.

Ernest Dumas
Little Rock, Arkansas

Last Updated: 10/05/2018

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