Joseph Morrison Hill (1864–1950)

Joseph Morrison Hill was elected chief justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court in 1904, the first person to defeat a sitting justice after Arkansas began electing Supreme Court justices in 1864. Although he served less than five years before resigning, Hill enjoyed a long and eminent career as an attorney, winning major cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. He also was a founder of the state tuberculosis sanatorium at Booneville (Logan County), which became the largest treatment facility for tuberculosis in the nation, and was president of its board of trustees most of his life. He died there in 1950.

Joseph Hill was born on September 2, 1864, at Davidson College in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, the son of Daniel Harvey Hill, who was a Confederate general in the Civil War, and Isabella Morrison Hill. The elder Hill was a scholar, historian, author, and educator whose academic career eventually brought him to Fayetteville (Washington County) in 1877 as president of the Arkansas Industrial University, which would become the University of Arkansas. Under President Hill, the university received steadily larger appropriations from the state, and its focus shifted from a mechanical and agricultural emphasis to a traditional classical education. Young Joseph Hill enrolled there for his classical schooling and then received a law degree in 1883 from Cumberland University in Lebanon, Tennessee.

Returning to his northwestern Arkansas home, Hill got a license to practice law in Berryville (Carroll County) and opened a practice in Eureka Springs (Carroll County). Soon afterward, for public entertainment and education, he organized a reenactment of a Civil War battle near Green Forest (Carroll County). It would become a part of Carroll County lore, as the event went badly awry. The cavalry actors decided to take Hill prisoner and inject some realism into the acting. In the melee that followed, horses were accidentally bayoneted. Several soldiers feigned death. The acting was too realistic, and bystanders fainted at the sight of blood.

In 1887, Hill moved to Fort Smith (Sebastian County), where he practiced law for most of the rest of his life. He married Kate Reynolds of Lake Village (Chicot County) in 1890, and they had two daughters.

In 1904, at the age of forty, he ran for chief justice against Henry G. Bunn, who had been on the court for eleven years. Sitting judges were rarely challenged and never defeated. The Arkansas Supreme Court had a huge backlog of cases, and it took years for the court to render a judgment. Hill promised to change the system so that the court would eliminate the backlog and render speedy decisions, which he thought the constitution required. Hill won easily, and in a few years, he and other young justices, notably Edgar A. McCulloch, had disposed of scores of old cases and made the court’s docket current.

The Supreme Court’s docket in the first decade of the century was marked by two troublesome kinds of cases: voting rights and railroad regulation. It was the beginning of the Jim Crow era, and the state was accelerating its efforts to restrict voting, especially by African Americans. The chief justice wrote an opinion directing that a law enacted in 1892 making a poll tax a requirement for voting be invalidated for not receiving the requisite number of votes. Amendment 8 subsequently legitimized the poll tax. In 1908 alone, the Supreme Court decided seventy-nine cases involving railroad regulation—freight rates, depot stations, employee or passenger injuries, and cattle deaths. Most of them involved the St. Louis, Iron Mountain and Southern Railway Company. Representing railroads and/or utilities was an especially lucrative practice for Arkansas lawyers.

On February 2, 1909, Justice Hill resigned from the court to become the chief attorney for the state in still another lawsuit over railroad freight rates involving the St. Louis, Iron Mountain and Southern Railway. Hill took the case, Allen v. St. Louis Iron Mountain and Southern Railway Company, to the U.S. Supreme Court and won. After resigning from the Supreme Court, Hill returned to Fort Smith and resumed a private practice with the firm of Hill, Fitzhugh and Brizzolara.

While Hill was on the Supreme Court, tuberculosis, the second leading cause of death in the United States, was killing 3,000 Arkansans a year. Hill helped create the Arkansas Tuberculosis Association, the first such association in the South, and then to establish a sanatorium to treat patients in the town of Booneville, east of Fort Smith. At the time, the only known treatment of the disease was to isolate sufferers in a setting where they would not contaminate others and where they could rest and get good food and fresh air.

The Booneville facility became the largest in the country. Hill chaired its board of trustees. He would die there on July 23, 1950. He is buried in Oak Cemetery in Fort Smith.

For additional information:
“J. M. Hill Dies at Booneville,” Northwest Arkansas Times, July 24, 1950, p. 1.

“Joseph Morrison Hill.” Centennial History of Arkansas, Vol. 2. Chicago: S. J. Clarke Publishing Company. 1922. Online at http://files.usgwarchives.net/ar/sebastian/bios/hill88bs.txt (accessed January 14, 2022).

Looney, J. W. “Chief Justice Joseph Morrison Hill.” Arkansas Lawyer 47 (Fall 2012): 32.

Ernest Dumas
Little Rock, Arkansas

Last Updated: 01/14/2022

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