Marion Steele Hays (1925–2011)

Steele Hays was a lawyer—and son of one of Arkansas’s most enduring and successful politicians—who spent the last fourteen years of his long legal career as a justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court. His father, Brooks Hays, a Democratic congressman from Arkansas, was renowned in the post–World War II years for his moderation in the struggle over racial segregation in the South. Steele Hays was more avowedly liberal on race and other issues, dissenting alone from upholding the death sentence on every such case that came before the Supreme Court.

Marion Steele Hays was born on March 25, 1925, in Little Rock (Pulaski County), one of two children of Brooks Hays and Marion Prather Hays. He was named after his mother but never used his first name.

His father’s peripatetic political career guided the young Steele’s early life from Little Rock to Washington DC and back. Brooks Hays lost three races for governor of Arkansas (in 1928, 1930, and 1966) but ran eight successful races for U.S. Congress, losing his last one in Arkansas to segregationist write-in candidate Dale Alford in 1958; he lost another race for Congress in North Carolina in 1972 to a colorful major-league baseball pitcher named Wilmer “Vinegar Bend” Mizell. Steele managed his father’s final race for governor in 1966, when the candidate offered himself as a champion of racial harmony and civic improvement, mainly in education, and publicly regretted having signed the segregationist Southern Manifesto in 1956, a move that was not calculated to win many votes in the still-charged atmosphere.

Steele Hays grew up in Little Rock and attended Little Rock schools. His father became an assistant attorney general under H. W. Applegate shortly before Steele was born. As his father alternated between jobs in Washington under the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and involvement in Arkansas politics, Steele moved back and forth between Little Rock and Washington.

Like his father, Steele Hays was a graduate of the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County) and the George Washington University Law School. After graduating from UA with a degree in history, he joined his father, by then a congressman, in Washington and received his law degree at George Washington. He met Sallie Brown of St. Louis, Missouri, and they were married in 1952. He joined his childhood friend, Maurice Mitchell, and two other senior partners at Little Rock to form a law firm that grew to be one of the state’s most prestigious: Spitzberg, Mitchell and Hays. He handled a variety of cases from civil litigation to family law, including many pro bono cases. Clients too poor to pay sometimes compensated him with home-raised pork, honey, or molasses.

In the 1960s, Hays served on the Arkansas Advisory Committee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights. In 1969, Governor Winthrop Rockefeller appointed him to a vacant circuit judgeship in Pulaski and Perry counties for eighteen months. When the Arkansas General Assembly created a new court, the Arkansas Court of Appeals, in 1979 to relieve the caseload of the Supreme Court, Governor Bill Clinton appointed Hays to one of the six seats. The next year, he ran for a seat on the Supreme Court. Hays had engaged in public debates on the death penalty, arguing that executions were both immoral and a violation of the Constitution’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Hays’s opponent in the race supported the death penalty. Although Hays did not articulate his views on legal issues during the race, his opponent made them known. Hays nevertheless carried sixty-nine of the seventy-five counties. He was reelected in 1988 and served until he retired on January 1, 1995. On the Supreme Court, he consistently recorded his opposition to executions whenever death penalty cases reached the court.

Justice Hays was the author of the Supreme Court’s finding in 1983 that the state’s public schools were operating unconstitutionally because the state had failed consistently to guarantee a suitable and efficient education for all the children in the state. The court’s order in Jim DuPree, et al. v. Alma School District No. 30 was the precursor of Lake View School District No. 25 v. Huckabee some twenty years later, which also found that the state government and not local school districts was responsible for ensuring an adequate education for all children. Four years earlier, Hays had been part of the majority in the case Arkansas Public Service Commission v. Pulaski County Board of Equalization (1979), which concluded that Arkansas counties were bound by the Constitution to assess all property for tax purposes on the basis of their market value and that there were huge and illegal disparities in how the counties assessed property, which contributed to vast disparities in funds available for public education. That decision led to the DuPree and then the Lake View cases.

Hays had three children. He divorced in 1980 and then married Peggy Wall, a family counselor who later became an Episcopal priest. They moved to Conway (Faulkner County), where she was pastor of a church, and he pursued a lifelong interest in Abraham Lincoln, researching Lincoln’s life and work and sharing his findings with civic groups and churches around the state. He was president of the Arkansas Chapter of the National Conference of Christians and Jews.

Hays died on June 22, 2011. He was cremated, and his ashes are interred at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Conway.

For additional information:
Hanson, Aprille. “Ex-Justice Steele Hays of Conway Dead at 86.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, June 24, 2011, pp. 1B, 10B.

Petrucelli, Fred. “Justice Steele Hays Remembered for Wisdom, Wit.” Log Cabin Democrat, June 23, 2011, p. 1.

Ernest Dumas
Little Rock, Arkansas


    Steele Hays was one of the wisest, most humane men I have ever known. His kindness, humility, and lived sense of Christian values endeared him to all who attended St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Conway. Not a month passes without my thinking of Steele and all his contributions to the Conway community.

    Wayne Stengel Conway, AR