James William Mehaffy (1886–1926)

James W. Mehaffy was a member of a distinguished family of lawyers and jurists. He was elected justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court but died in a car wreck weeks before he was to be sworn in. His father and law partner in Little Rock (Pulaski County) was appointed to fill his seat on the Supreme Court and then was elected to the court and served for sixteen years. James Mehaffy was the first in the family to be elected a judge, but others in the family followed him into the state and federal judiciary for the rest of the twentieth century.

Born on December 24, 1886, in Saline County, James William Mehaffy was the eldest of four sons and two daughters of Thomas M. Mehaffy and Anna Arabelle Poe Mehaffy. His father had little formal education but later farmed, taught school in Benton (Saline County), and engaged in politics, getting elected mayor of Benton and a state representative; he then moved to Little Rock, studied law, became a lawyer, and opened a practice.

James Mehaffy went to school in Benton and then Little Rock, graduating in 1907 from Henderson-Brown College (which exists today as Henderson State University) in Arkadelphia (Clark County), where he won a state oratorical contest with a declamation on “Growth Toward a Perfect Union.” Later, he enrolled at the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County), where he received a bachelor’s degree in law in 1910. He married Ara E. Mitchell of Fayetteville, and they had two children.

Mehaffy joined his father and his father’s law partner, Charles C. Reid, in offices in the Southern Trust Building and then the Donaghey Building. The Mehaffy firm represented major corporations that did business in Arkansas and the nearby region, such as Missouri Pacific Railroad, Standard Oil Company, and Wells Fargo & Company.

Mehaffy gained some renown as a litigant. He was elected Little Rock’s city attorney in 1913. He sued the Mackay Telegraph Company, and the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which decided in his favor. He won a suit to force the Arkansaw Water Company to provide a supplemental source of drinking water for the city in summer months.

When the young Mehaffy decided to run for one of two new seats on the Arkansas Supreme Court—voters in 1926 had amended the state constitution to expand the court from five to the current seven seats—the firm had become Mehaffy, Donham and Mehaffy. William R. Donham was the other senior partner.

Nine men ran for the two new Supreme Court seats in the Democratic Party primary in the summer of 1926. Mehaffy led the field, and William F. Kirby finished second, so they became the Democratic nominees for the general election. Neither was opposed in the general election, which was held a few days before Mehaffy’s death. To prepare for his Supreme Court career, Mehaffy had equipped his home on West 20th Street in Little Rock with an extensive law library.

Before he was to be sworn in as an associate justice on January 1, 1927, Mehaffy went on a deer-hunting trip for several days near Lake Village (Chicot County). On Saturday morning, November 20, he started back to Little Rock. He was cruising alone in his Ford roadster near Trippe Junction, four miles south of McGehee (Desha County), and passed farmers who later said he was traveling about thirty miles an hour. He crossed a railroad track and lost control of the car, which struck a railroad-crossing signpost. The car overturned and pinned him beneath it. The farmers rushed up and pulled him from beneath the car. He tried to walk, but his chest was crushed. They took him to a doctor’s office in McGehee, where he died on the operating table.

After Mehaffy’s funeral, Governor Tom J. Terral, who had been Mehaffy’s classmate at the University of Arkansas and was soon to leave office after his defeat in the 1926 election, appointed James Mehaffy’s father, Tom, who was then sixty-seven years old, to fill the vacancy created by his son’s death until the next election. Tom Mehaffy then ran for the seat in 1928 and was reelected twice, retiring in 1942.

James Mehaffy is buried in Oakland and Fraternal Historic Cemetery Park in Little Rock.

For additional information:
“James W. Mehaffy Dies in Accident.” Arkansas Gazette, November 21, 1926, pp. 1, 19.

Ernest Dumas
Little Rock, Arkansas

Last Updated: 08/03/2022

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