James Houston (Jim) Gunter Jr. (1943–)
Lawyer and politician James Houston Gunter Jr. was a prosecutor and judge for thirty-six years in the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century, spending the final eight years of his public career as a justice on the Arkansas Supreme Court. He retired after one term on the Supreme Court and returned to a private law practice and cattle farming.
James Gunter was born on March 8, 1943, in Atlanta, Texas, the oldest of four children of James H. Gunter Sr. and Helen Marie Long Gunter. His father went into the U.S. Army when Gunter was an infant, and he and his mother lived with his grandmother until World War II ended. The family lived in Arkansas on the farm of Gunter relatives near McNeil (Columbia County) until he was five, when they moved to Patroon, Texas, where his father’s family began operating a sawmill. Gunter attended school in the nearby town of Shelbyville, worked at the sawmill, picked cotton, and sold the newspaper Grit. He later said that the toil of picking cotton and sawmill work convinced him to go to college.
He enrolled at Texas A&M University in College Station and received a degree in accounting and business in 1965. He married Ruth Miller of Shelbyville when he was a junior in college; they later had a son and a daughter. After college, Gunter moved to Hope (Hempstead County), where he was briefly an accountant for the Gunter family lumber mills, called Hempstead Manufacturing Company. For about five years, he was an adjuster for Farmers Insurance Group in Hope, which entailed traveling around the southwestern quarter of the state. A family friend, municipal judge John L. Wilson of Hope, persuaded him to become a lawyer. This notion was reinforced when Gunter watched the colorful Texarkana (Miller County) lawyer Boyd Tackett, a former congressman, deliver the closing argument in a trial he was observing for the insurance company. Farmers Insurance transferred him to Houston, Texas, where he enrolled in the University of Houston Bates School of Law. He graduated in 1972 and returned to Hope, where Wilson had promised him a job in his law firm.
For four years, he carried on a wide civil and criminal defense practice. In 1976, he ran for prosecuting attorney for the Eighth Judicial District and defeated Boyd Tackett Jr. of Texarkana. Although prosecutors typically delegated minor criminal trials to deputies in the outlying counties, Gunter participated in all the trials in the five counties of the district for the next six years.
In 1982, Gunter ran unopposed for chancery judge, which dealt with family, probate, and other equity matters, and served for the next twenty-two years, half that time after circuit and chancery courts were consolidated. Gunter ran for the Supreme Court in 2004 to succeed the retiring Justice Ray H. Thornton Jr. Gunter said years later that he doubted he could have won a statewide race but that the politics of the time delivered it to him. One of his two opponents was Circuit Judge Collins Kilgore of Little Rock (Pulaski County), who had decided the landmark case of Lake View School District No. 25 v. Huckabee. Kilgore held that the state had failed to provide a suitable, efficient, and equal educational program for all the children in Arkansas public schools. The decision was immensely unpopular in rural regions because it was viewed as requiring the consolidation of schools with low enrollments and the imposition of higher taxes. While Judge Kilgore did not always mention during the campaign that he authored the decision, others did, although Gunter did not criticize the decision. Judge Paul Danielson, who would be elected to another seat on the Supreme Court two years later, was eliminated in the primary, and Gunter defeated Kilgore in the runoff election.
When the Lake View lawsuit came before the Supreme Court in 2005 and again in 2006 in two of the case’s several appeals, Justice Gunter joined Chief Justice Jim Hannah in dissenting from a Supreme Court order that the Arkansas General Assembly and governor had not provided a sufficient remedy to the court’s previous holding that the schools were operating unconstitutionally because they were not financed equally and adequately.
Justice Gunter’s most controversial decision came in the case of Hobbs v. Jones in 2012, a lawsuit brought by ten inmates on death row in the Arkansas penitentiary. Writing for a five-member majority, Gunter said that when the legislature enacted the Method of Execution Act of 2009, it gave prison officials too much discretion in choosing a specific drug protocol with which to execute prisoners. He said that the Arkansas Constitution required the legislature to order a specific execution method that would meet the test of punishment that was neither cruel nor unusual. The decision halted executions until the legislature directed an execution method that met the test.
At the end of his term in 2012, Gunter did not run again. He had divorced after twenty-seven years of marriage, and he married Judith Thompson of Morrilton (Conway County) in 1992. He had begun a cattle farm with his father at Hope in the 1980s. In retirement, he carried on a small law practice in Hope, served as a mediator, and tended the cattle farm.
For additional information:
Brooks, Jim. “Kilgore Concedes: Race Goes to Gunter.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, November 3, 2004, pp. 1B, 7B.
Hobbs v. Jones, et al. Ark. 293, June 22, 2012.
“Interview with Justice James H. Gunter.” Arkansas Supreme Court Project, Arkansas Supreme Court Historical Society. https://www.arcourts.gov/sites/default/files/oralhistories/Justice%20Gunter%20Interview.pdf (accessed October 19, 2020).
Little Rock, Arkansas
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When cousin Jim Gunter began his race for the Supreme Court, he recruited me to campaign door to door in Texarkana, Arkansas. I met many people and thoroughly enjoyed it.
An African-American minister of the gospel brightened up visibly when I asked him to consider voting for Jim.
“I know the Gunter family,” he declared, “and tomorrow, Sunday morning, I shall ask my members to go out and vote for him–a Christian.”
As I so often tell Jim himself, this single encounter turned the electoral tide toward victory.