Elana Leigh Cunningham Wills (1962–)
Elana Leigh Wills, a native of Jonesboro (Craighead County), practiced law at the highest levels of state government for more than thirty years, including a stint of two years as a justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court and many years as a deputy attorney general and a member of the state’s Public Service Commission. Governor Mike Beebe appointed her to the Supreme Court upon the retirement of Justice Thomas A. Glaze in 2008. She avoided politics but served in state legal jobs under seven attorneys general; her final state job was at the utility commission by appointment from Governor Beebe. Wills’s mother was a distant cousin of Edgar L. McHaney, who served twenty-one years on the Arkansas Supreme Court, and Wills would later hold his seat, becoming the fifth woman to serve on the Arkansas Supreme Court.
Elana Leigh Cunningham was born on August 10, 1962, in Paragould (Greene County), where both of her parents had grown up in merchant families. At the time of her birth, her mother, Wilma McHaney Cunningham, was staying temporarily with her own mother in Paragould while her father, Darrel Cunningham, was serving in the U.S. Army. After Cunningham’s parents married, they had moved to Jonesboro, where Cunningham and her elder sister and younger brother went to school. Her mother became a schoolteacher, while her father was a broadcaster, a college professor, a television station manager, a colonel in the U.S. Army Reserves, and finally a foundation director at Fort Smith (Sebastian County). Her mother ended her career as director of the library and media relations at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith (UAFS).
After graduating from Jonesboro High School in 1980, Cunningham enrolled at Arkansas State University (ASU) and earned a degree in finance while clerking at local retail stores. She enrolled at the University of Arkansas School of Law in Fayetteville (Washington County) and received a juris doctorate with honors in 1987. For a year, she practiced commercial law at the Rose Law Firm, Arkansas’s oldest law firm, along with Hillary Rodham Clinton, before applying for a job in the attorney general’s office. Attorney General Steve Clark hired her in 1988, and soon she became chief of the opinions section, which turned out hundreds of legal opinions a year to legislators and other state and local government officials. There, she met her future husband, Frank J. Wills, a litigator in the civil division of the office. They had a daughter.
Elana Wills would serve under five elected attorneys general and two who were appointed to complete unexpired terms. Many opinion requests were from lawmakers and agency officials seeking favorable interpretations of the state Freedom of Information Act—favorable to their notions that certain documents and meetings should be off limits to reporters and the general public. Her opinions usually took the opposite view, basing them on language in the Supreme Court’s original decision on the 1967 law, that it should always be interpreted to give maximum concern to the public’s right to know what their government is doing. In 2003, the Arkansas Press Association gave her its annual Freedom of Information Award for advancing the people’s right to know.
For four of her years serving in the attorney general’s office, the attorney general was Mike Beebe, who was elected governor in 2006 and took office the next January. When Justice Thomas A. Glaze, in failing health, retired in August 2008, Beebe appointed her to complete the final two years of Glaze’s term on the Supreme Court. In announcing her appointment, Beebe said he had been instantly impressed with her grasp of federal and state constitutional law and the state and federal codes, as well as with her dogged research on every topic. “I found Elana to be almost matter-of-factly, absent-mindedly professorish in her knowledge of the Constitution,” he said.
Wills said that she discovered early while delivering opinions to agencies of government that it was easy to err. She saw a remark written by the poet Ogden Nash: “Confidence is that feeling you have before you really understand the problem.” She clipped it and taped it to her desk, in the attorney general’s office, at the Supreme Court, and later at the Public Service Commission, always to remind her that she needed to pay devout attention to the views of everyone else on her staff and on the court before delivering her decision.
Weeks after her stint on the Supreme Court ended in January 2011, Beebe appointed her to a vacancy on the three-member state Public Service Commission, which regulates investor-owned energy and communications utilities. Her term ended in 2019.
For additional information:
Blomeley, Seth. “Wills Given Glaze Seat as a Justice.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, September 3, 2008, pp. 1A, 10A.
Dumas, Ernest. Interview with Justice Elana Leigh Cunningham Wills, November 2, 2013. Arkansas Supreme Court Project, Arkansas Supreme Court Historical Society.
“Elana Wills Named to PSC.” Arkansas Times, January 7, 2011.
Little Rock, Arkansas
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