Herb Rule (1937–2023)

Herb Rule practiced law in Little Rock (Pulaski County) for forty-six years and engaged in political reform on several fronts—education, racial equality, criminal justice, and sexual and gender equality—and twice pursued those causes from public office: the Arkansas House of Representatives and the Little Rock School Board. He was the victor in one of the most famous legislative races in Arkansas history, defeating state Representative Paul Van Dalsem, the powerful boss of the state House of Representatives, in the Democratic primary of 1966. A Democrat, Rule made a surprising and unsuccessful race for Congress in 2012 when he was in his seventies, after the Republican Party had won dominance in the state.

Herbert Charles Rule III was born on November 21, 1937, in Little Rock, the middle of three children of Herbert Charles Rule and Dora Stafford Rule. His father ran a furniture store. He went to Central High School, where he was a lineman for the state-champion football team and played for the basketball and baseball teams. He graduated in 1955, two years before the desegregation crisis at Central. Rule went to Yale University, owing partly to a Naval Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) scholarship; he graduated in 1959 and spent two years on active duty with the U.S. Marines. He spent part of the time in the Far East, and then another seven years in the Marine Reserves.

He entered the University of Arkansas School of Law in Fayetteville (Washington County), where he was editor of the Arkansas Law Review, graduating in 1964. He joined the Little Rock firm of Rose, Meek, House, Barron, Nash and Williamson—later the Rose Law Firm—which was the oldest law firm in Arkansas, dating to the state’s territorial days. Rule did extensive trial work, including utility regulation, labor, business, environmental, and real-estate law. He married Beth Dolbey, and they had three sons. After a divorce, Rule married Renie Prentice.

His clash in 1966 with Paul Van Dalsem, who had first been elected to the legislature in 1936, followed the end of the long struggle over integration at Central High, Rule’s alma mater, and the beginning of a new era of moderation and even progressive reforms. Van Dalsem had helped to shepherd through the legislature some of Governor Orval Faubus’s segregation acts in 1958 and 1959 and suggested at a legislative hearing that communists were behind integration. When the U.S. Supreme Court declared that the U.S. Constitution required that every voter be equally represented in legislative bodies, Arkansas had to redistrict both legislative houses. Most counties lost their automatic House member. Rather than run against a rural representative from small adjoining counties, Van Dalsem influenced the state commission charged with the redistricting to consolidate Perry County with Pulaski County, which would elect thirteen representatives. Van Dalsem ran for one of the seats with the promise of using his influence to get things done for the urban communities in the new district as he had for country people.

However, Van Dalsem gave a talk at a men’s civic club in west Little Rock in 1963 that made him infamous. In response to a question about liberal women’s groups like the American Association of University Women, which had been active in the campaign to reopen Little Rock schools and reform election laws, he said: “We don’t have any of these university women in Perry County, but I’ll tell you what we do up there when one of our women starts poking around in something she doesn’t know anything about. We get her an extra milk cow. If that don’t work, we give her a little more garden to tend to. And then if that’s not enough, we get her pregnant and keep her barefoot.” The Arkansas Gazette reported the quip, and it sparked a backlash, especially among urban women. But Van Dalsem figured it enhanced his popularity.

Herb Rule filed for the same seat in the Democratic primary. Hundreds of women who had organized as the Women’s Emergency Committee to Open Our Schools in 1958 went to work for Rule and reformers in other races. In Rule’s case, the “Barefoot Women for Rule” ran advertisements with caricatures drawn by future Arkansas Gazette cartoonist George Fisher ridiculing Van Dalsem and his view on women. Rule beat Van Dalsem handily (many Little Rock women took their shoes off when they entered polling stations). He then defeated the Republican candidate Marion B. Burton—who later served as an aide to Winthrop Rockefeller—in the general election.

Rule and another young Little Rock lawyer, Charles D. Matthews, were the stars of a moderate freshman class. They gave the new governor the few votes he received for his tax increases and regulatory and administrative reforms in the overwhelmingly Democratic legislature. Rule was the author in 1969 of the mixed-drinks law, supported by Rockefeller, that allowed communities to have local-option elections to sell mixed drinks at restaurants, hotels, and private clubs. He also championed other reforms through constitutional amendments, including one that would have established a special state court to regulate the appointment of independent judges and to govern matters of the conduct and competency of judges.

His law firm believed its lawyers should stay out of politics. Reportedly at the urging of his senior partners, Rule did not run again in 1970. But he did run for the Little Rock School Board, which continued to be at the center of controversy and litigation over the pace and form of school integration. He was elected twice, serving from 1978 to 1984.

While he did not run for political office again until his ill-timed race for Congress in 2012, Rule was prominent in reform causes—women’s rights; equal protection for LGBTQ+ persons; criminal justice; and especially for an end to the death penalty. For many years, he was a leader of the Arkansas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. Rule was the lead attorney in seeking to reverse orders for the execution of Barry Lee Fairchild, contending that no evidence connected Fairchild directly to the crime and that Fairchild was mentally disabled, which the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled was grounds not to execute a convicted person. However, Fairchild was executed in 1995.

In 2012, against the wishes of his law firm, Rule ran for the U.S. House from the Second District, filing last-minute when no one else had announced. The district had become overwhelmingly Republican by then, and the Democratic Party discounted his campaign. Despite Rule’s advanced age and the daunting prospect of getting many votes for a Democrat in the six counties around Pulaski, he was endorsed by former president Bill Clinton and Rule’s former law partner, Hillary Clinton. Still, his arrest while he was campaigning in Fayetteville for driving while intoxicated and quarrelling with the Fayetteville officers who stopped him sank any chances he had for victory. Rule received less than forty percent of the vote. The following year, he was convicted on DWI charges.

He retired from law practice but continued, almost until his death, playing tennis and golf regularly and participating in choral groups. He died on April 3, 2023, at age eighty-five.

For additional information:
Fairchild v. Norris, 317 Ark. 166, Supreme Court of Arkansas, May 31, 1994.

Harrison, Eric E. “Former Legislator, Lawyer Dies at 87 [sic].” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, April 5, 2023, p. 2B.

“Herb Rule, a Historic Figure in Arkansas Politics, Dies at 86 [sic].” Arkansas Times, April 4, 2023. https://arktimes.com/arkansas-blog/2023/04/04/herb-rule-a-historic-figure-in-arkansas-politics-is-dead (accessed July 20, 2023).

Obituary of Herbert Charles Rule III. Legacy.com. https://www.legacy.com/us/obituaries/name/herbert-rule-obituary?id=51576654 (accessed July 20, 2023).

Ernest Dumas
Little Rock, Arkansas


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