Frank Grigsby Smith (1872–1950)

Having been elected to an eight-year term, Frank G. Smith took a seat on the Arkansas Supreme Court in October 1912 on the same day the court moved from Arkansas’s first state capitol building in downtown Little Rock (Pulaski County) into its new quarters in the new capitol at Woodlane Street and Fifth Street, now West Capitol Avenue. Thirty-seven years later, in 1949, Smith retired, having served longer at that point than any justice in Arkansas history.

Frank Grigsby Smith was born on August 3, 1872, in Marion (Crittenden County) to John Franklin Smith and Martha J. Gidden Smith. His father was a rich planter who had been a colonel on the staff of General Nathan Bedford Forrest during the Civil War. Smith grew up on the big cotton farm and studied (but without earning a degree) at the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County) and the Davis School in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He was admitted to the bar in 1893 at the age of twenty-one and elected to the Arkansas House of Representatives as a Democrat in 1894, again in 1896, and then to a four-year term in the state Senate in 1902. He married Clara Webb of Forrest City (St. Francis County) in 1897; they had no children.

In 1906, Smith was elected circuit judge in the Second Judicial District. Approximately two years after being reelected in 1910, he resigned the seat so that he could run for an open seat as associate justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court. When he won that election in 1912, Governor George W. Donaghey, who had not appointed his successor to the circuit court, appointed Smith to fill out the remaining weeks of his own trial-court term. Although construction of the new Arkansas State Capitol was not yet complete, the Supreme Court moved from downtown to the new capitol at the end of 1912, and the new justice was sworn in there.

The Supreme Court had fallen years behind in rendering decisions. The new chief justice, Edgar A. McCulloch, was committed to eliminating the massive backlog, which meant a huge research and writing workload for Smith and the other three justices. The backlog was eliminated in several years, and the court never again fell behind. Smith would say upon his retirement that McCulloch was the greatest man he had ever known because he seemed to work all the time, either from dedication or absentmindedness. The other four were compelled to match his zeal. One of Smith’s first cases was the nationally famous trial of the accused murderer of Ella Barham in Boone County. The teenage girl was raped, murdered, and dismembered near her family’s home on Crooked Creek. A young man who knew Ella, Odus Davidson, was convicted—charges against his brother were later dropped—and he was sentenced to hang. His conviction was appealed to the Supreme Court; the chief argument, besides the weakness of the evidence, was that since he was not in the courtroom when the jury returned the verdict, he was denied his constitutional right to due process of law. The Supreme Court upheld his conviction, three to two. In one of his first opinions, Justice Smith wrote a long dissent in which he argued that Davidson deserved a new trial because state and federal courts had repeatedly held that a person could not be convicted and sentenced when he was not present.

Eight years later, he and his four colleagues had to sit in judgment on the convictions and death sentences of a dozen Black men who were accused of leading an insurrection of sharecroppers against white plantation owners in Phillips County and the surrounding area in October 1919 and killing a deputy sheriff who tried to break up a nighttime meeting of the sharecroppers at a Black church near Elaine (Phillips County). The twelve who were sentenced to be hanged following the events of the Elaine Massacre were divided into two groups, and their convictions and appeals went back and forth from Phillips County to the state Supreme Court, a federal trial court, and the U.S. Supreme Court. In the first case of six men convicted of murder, the Arkansas Supreme Court, including Smith, reversed the convictions in March 1920 because the verdict rendered by the jury was “so defective that no judgment can be rendered upon it.” The court ordered a new trial.

By January 1924, five more cases involving the twelve condemned men had reached the state Supreme Court. In one, Justice Smith wrote the opinion upholding a set of convictions. The convictions of one group of six were overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, however, in a major civil rights precedent written by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. Eventually, after two lawmen involved in the torture and forced admissions of guilt acknowledged the deeds, all twelve men were freed by actions of either the U.S. or state supreme courts or by the new governor, Thomas C. McRae.

Over his career, Justice Smith had written 3,225 opinions, ten short of the record for any state justice in American history at that time. Justice Smith’s longevity on the court eventually was eclipsed by one year by his young colleague, George Rose Smith, who joined the court months before the elder justice’s retirement. The younger judge retired in 1986 after thirty-eight years on the bench.

Upon Smith’s retirement in 1949, the University of Arkansas conferred an honorary Doctor of Laws degree upon him. He died on October 27, 1950. He is buried in the historic Elmwood Cemetery in Memphis, Tennessee, near the site of General Forrest’s original tomb.

For additional information:
Case file, State v. Davidson, No. 183 (Ark. Cir. Ct. 1913). Boone County Circuit Clerk’s Office. Boone County Courthouse, Harrison, Arkansas.

Case file, Davidson v. State, 108 Ark. 158, S.W. 1103 (1913). University of Arkansas at Little Rock William H. Bowen School of Law/Pulaski County Law Library, Little Rock, Arkansas.

Boone County Court Record Book L, County Clerk’s Office. Boone County Courthouse, Harrison, Arkansas.

“Frank G. Smith, Supreme Court Veteran, Is Dead.” Arkansas Gazette, October 28, 1950, p. 12.

Gould, Nita. Remembering Ella: A 1912 Murder and Mystery in the Arkansas Ozarks. Little Rock: Butler Center Books, 2018.

Ernest Dumas
Little Rock, Arkansas

Last Updated: 11/05/2021

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