John Fred Stroud Jr. (1931–2022)
John Fred Stroud Jr. spent most of his long career practicing law in Texarkana (Miller County) but also spent ten years on the appellate bench—nine on the Arkansas Court of Appeals and one as a justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court. He led the effort in 2000 to reorganize and reform the state’s judicial system and also spearheaded efforts for two decades to conserve the state’s waters and stabilize its streams. He worked for, befriended, or advised a number of Arkansas’s most notable politicians and jurists of the era, including U.S. senators John L. McClellan and David H. Pryor, Governors Bill Clinton and Jim Guy Tucker, federal judges Richard S. Arnold and Morris S. “Buzz” Arnold of the U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, Attorney General Jack Holt Sr., and Supreme Court chief justice Jack Holt Jr. Stroud’s lifetime friend and law partner, Hayes C. McClerkin, was speaker of the Arkansas House of Representatives and a candidate for governor in 1970.
John F. Stroud Jr. was born on October 3, 1931, in Hope (Hempstead County), the only child of John Fred Stroud Sr. and Elola Clarine Steel Stroud, who were descendants of lawyers and jurists in southwestern Arkansas. When he was born, the Great Depression was reaching its depth and his father lost his job as a traveling salesman for the food distributor Nabisco. The family spent a year with his grandmother in Valiant, Oklahoma, and then a period with his grandfather, Circuit Judge A. P. Steel, in Ashdown (Little River County) while his father was struggling to find a new career.
As a child, Stroud decided he wanted to be a lawyer, and Steel, by that time a chancery judge headquartered at Texarkana, had him sit with him on the bench with a coloring book while he conducted trials. Stroud briefly went to school in Texarkana but spent most of his school years in Little Rock (Pulaski County) in the Pulaski Heights neighborhood and at Little Rock (later Central) High School, where he graduated in 1949. Former attorney general Jack Holt Sr., a losing candidate for the U.S. Senate and twice a candidate for governor, advised him on all the courses to take in high school to prepare him for a career in the law. His father sold real estate for Faucett & Co., worked for the U.S. Labor Department Wage and Hour Division, and finally found a career with the timber industry in southwestern Arkansas in Texarkana. His son would settle there, too.
When he started his higher education at Hendrix College in Conway (Faulkner County) in the fall of 1949, the Korean War was on the horizon. After his second year at the school, Stroud enlisted in the U.S. Air Force. Flying was the second passion of his life. As an Eagle Scout, he had been part of the “Flying Scouts,” youngsters who flew with pilots at the Central Flying Service at Little Rock’s Adams Field and learned the rudiments of piloting. He had polio as a child, which left him with a severely weakened right leg, but at his air force induction in 1951 the enlistment officers watched him do a few exercises and concluded that the weak leg would not prevent him from performing the grueling work of piloting fighter craft. He trained for three years at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas; at a Russian-language school and air force facility at Syracuse University in Syracuse, New York; and at O’Hare Air Force Base in Chicago. He flew the fighter jet F-86D with other pilots who prepared to engage Russian bombers that the Defense Department expected to enter the Korean War by flying over North America (they never did). He broke the sound barrier at least once. He would spend over twenty years in the Air Force Reserves as a Judge Advocate General’s Corps (JAG) officer, along with his close friend, Jack Holt Jr., both of whom became colonels.
In 1956, after his stint with the air force, he enrolled at the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County), where he received a bachelor’s degree and a law degree and where he met and married Marietta Kimball of De Queen (Pike County), who would become a schoolteacher. They had two daughters and a son.
He returned to Texarkana with his longtime friend and law school classmate Hayes McClerkin and opened a two-man practice. Senator McClellan offered him a job as a legislative assistant in Washington DC, and he took it. He would reminisce about his experiences in his year and a half in Washington, including McClellan’s racketeering hearings. He was present at many of the hearings and also substituted for McClellan at the famous birthday gala at Madison Square Garden for President John F. Kennedy on May 19, 1962, when the movie star Marilyn Monroe cooed, “Happy Birthday, Mr. President,” to Kennedy, with whom she was rumored to be having an affair (she died of a barbiturate overdose less than three months later). Stroud also liked to recall that he substituted again for McClellan at the famous “Big Shootout” or “Game of the Century” at Razorback Stadium in December 1969 between the Arkansas Razorbacks and Texas Longhorns, the top-rated teams in the country, and sat with President Richard M. Nixon and other dignitaries.
Returning to Texarkana after his stint with Senator McClellan, Stroud joined the expanded firm with Alex Sanderson, Willis B. Smith, and Willis B. Smith Jr., the latter a member of Governor Clinton’s cabinet. The firm grew to ten lawyers. He largely undertook plaintiffs’ law, including estate work; oil and gas litigation; and work with levee and drainage districts in Arkansas and the larger Red River Basin, including Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas. He was president of the four-state Red River Commission for many years and worked with other river commissions and drainage districts in Arkansas. As a member and leader of the state Water Code Study Commission in the 1970s and 1980s, he led efforts to establish permanent rules for regulating water distribution and conservation in Arkansas watersheds.
In late 1979, Chief Justice Carleton Harris became ill and retired. Governor Clinton elevated Associate Justice John Fogleman to his seat on the court and appointed Stroud to complete Fogleman’s last year as a justice.
In 1996, after the state constitution was altered to expand the state Court of Appeals from six to twelve members, Governor Tucker appointed him to a three-year term on the court. Stroud subsequently ran for the seat and served nine years on the court, the final four years as the chief judge. He also became president of the Arkansas Bar Association.
Stroud directed the drafting of a constitutional amendment to reform and reorganize the trial and appellate courts, resulting in ratification of Amendment 80. This amendment directed the reformation of the courts, including the election of justices on a nonpartisan basis for the first time. Stroud had become sympathetic to the idea of abandoning the election of state judges and also to the founders’ belief that the courts should not be subject to the whims of politics and of electoral majorities as the executive and legislative branches were. Elections and even appointments threatened people (especially minorities and people with unpopular beliefs, religions, and nationalities) with the loss of their constitutional rights of speech, religion, and voting. But Stroud thought voters would not accept an appointive system and settled for nonpartisan elections.
Stroud said in 2013 that he was alarmed by the growing politicization of the courts, both through elections and appointments and at both the federal and state levels. He deplored the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the landmark 2010 decision Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (558 U.S. 310), which allowed private wealth to pump massive sums into political campaigns, including those for judges, through “super PACs” that were not required to divulge the identity or amounts of private spending on campaigns.
“It scares me about the elective system,” he said. “The United States Supreme Court allowing it was the worst decision I can think of for the judiciary.” He lived to see the realization of his fears of judicial partisanship, as manifest in elections to the state Supreme Court.
Stroud died on March 27, 2022, in Texarkana.
For additional information:
Larowe, Lynn. “Stroud, 90, Ex-Chief Judge of Appeals Court, Dies.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, March 28, 2022, p. 6B. Online at https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2022/mar/28/stroud-90-ex-chief-judge-of-appeals-court-dies/ (accessed August 31, 2022).
Obituary of John F. Stroud Jr. Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, March 29, 2022, pp. 2B, 3B.
Dumas, Ernest. “Interview With Justice John Stroud.” Arkansas Supreme Court Project, Arkansas Supreme Court Historical Society, November 7, 2013. https://www.arcourts.gov/sites/default/files/oralhistories/John%20Stroud%20transcript.pdf (accessed August 31, 2022).
Little Rock, Arkansas
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