Paul Edward Danielson (1945–)

Paul E. Danielson served ten years on the Arkansas Supreme Court, and his wife, Betsy Williams Danielson, also was appointed to the Arkansas Court of Appeals, the state’s intermediate appellate court. Justice Danielson retired in 2016, owing to a statute that effectively barred judges from running for office again after they reached the age of seventy because it would cancel their judicial pensions. The couple then practiced together in a western Arkansas law firm with their son and Danielson’s brother. Danielson’s departure from the court at the end of 2016 coincided with its historic turn to partisanship and politics, despite a constitutional amendment ratified in 2000 that was intended to protect the courts from those dispositions.

Paul Edward Danielson was born on June 12, 1945, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the second youngest of six children of George S. Danielson, who was a bank examiner, and Dorothy E. Danielson. He was reared in the nearby town of Watertown. All the five boys were athletic, and the three youngest went to college on athletic scholarships. Danielson played tennis at Florida State University and graduated in 1968.

He started his law school career at Florida State Law School, which was interrupted by military service during the Vietnam War. Danielson started his four-year U.S. Air Force obligation at the Strategic Air Command headquarters at Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, Nebraska, and was later transferred to the Little Rock Air Force Base. After he completed his military obligation, he continued his legal education at the University of Arkansas School of Law’s division in Little Rock (Pulaski County) and met Betsy Williams, the daughter of U.S. District Judge Paul Williams.

Both received their law degrees in 1975, and she took a job as deputy prosecutor in the Sixth Judicial District of Pulaski and Perry counties. Danielson’s first job out of law school was as a law clerk for Arkansas Supreme Court Justice J. Frank Holt. He was an instructor at the law school in Little Rock before taking a job as deputy prosecutor in the Sixth Judicial District of Pulaski and Perry counties. After several years, they decided to seek their fortune in western Arkansas, and Danielson opened a law firm in Fort Smith (Sebastian County). He soon was invited to join the law firm of Harper, Young, Smith and Maurras. In 1981, the couple relocated to Booneville (Logan County), where they were married. Danielson set up a solo practice while also serving as city attorney for Booneville and deputy prosecutor for the Fifteenth Judicial Circuit, covering Logan, Yell, Scott, and Conway counties. He was first elected circuit judge of the district in 1994 after the trial courts were reorganized.

In 2006, after Associate Justice James Hannah of the Arkansas Supreme Court was elected chief justice, Danielson was elected to complete Hannah’s term as an associate justice. He was reelected for a full term in 2008. Meantime, Betsy Danielson was establishing her own judicial career, serving at every level of the state’s judicial system except the Supreme Court.

One of the first cases to arrive at the Arkansas Supreme Court after Danielson joined it was the final order in the long-running school-funding dispute embodied in the case Lake View School District v. Huckabee, in which the court, including Danielson, accepted the state’s steps to comply with Arkansas’s constitutional mandate to provide a suitable and equal education for every child. The court accepted the system that the state had established to assure perpetual full funding of the public schools’ needs and ended the litigation.

During Danielson’s decade on the appellate bench, the Supreme Court was embroiled in the social and civil liberties controversies that roiled the state and the country—principally legal issues arising from gender and sexuality debates and questions about how and when the death penalty could be invoked without violating the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Like nearly all the Arkansas justices of that period, Danielson was on what was commonly characterized as the liberal side of judicial decision-making.

The first such case was the constitutionality of the Arkansas Adoption and Foster Care Act, an initiated act ratified by voters in 2008 that was drafted by the Arkansas Family Council to “blunt the homosexual agenda in Arkansas.” It prohibited same-sex couples (or any unmarried couples) from adopting children or serving as foster parents. The Arkansas Supreme Court unanimously held (in Department of Human Services v. Cole, 2011) that the restrictions violated the privacy rights of individuals found in both the federal and state constitutions and also that the state and the Family Council had not proven that the initiated act did anything to protect the health and safety of children. Danielson joined the opinion written by Justice Robert L. Brown.

A challenge to a 2004 amendment to the state constitution that prohibited same-sex couples from marrying followed. In 2013, lawsuits were filed both in Pulaski County Circuit Court and the federal court of the Eastern District of Arkansas challenging the constitutionality of the law. Both Judge Christine Baker of the federal district court and Judge Chris Piazza of the Pulaski County Circuit Court conducted trials, and both ruled that the ban on marriages violated the equal protection and due process clauses of the U.S. Constitution. In the state case (Wright v. Arkansas), Piazza held that the law violated both the federal constitution and the even stronger declaration of rights in Article Two of the state constitution. Baker’s decision was upheld in 2015 by the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Piazza’s circuit court ruling was appealed to the Arkansas Supreme Court, which never rendered a formal decision. The court waited until the U.S. Supreme Court in the summer of 2015 in Obergefell v. Hodges invalidated all such state laws as violations of the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution. Then, without explanation, the state court simply noted in a brief, unsigned per curiam order that the appeal of Judge Piazza’s decision was dismissed as moot because the Obergefell decision had settled all the issues in the state suit, effectively leaving Piazza’s entire decision as the law of Arkansas.

Part of the delay was caused by a dispute over who should decide the marriage case—the special justice who had originally been assigned the case by the governor to replace a justice who had recused from deciding the case, or a newly elected justice who had been elected in the interim. The majority decided to take up the marriage issue as a fresh case with the new judge. It had always been the practice that a special judge appointed by the governor stayed on a case until it was decided. Chief Justice Hannah and Justice Danielson disagreed with the decision to take up the issue as a new case, and Danielson recused himself from the new one. In his recusal letter, Danielson wrote, “I will not be complicit in machinations that have the effect of denying justice to people in this Court.”

A third case arising from the same-sex marriage controversy involved the efforts of three female couples whose children had been conceived by artificial insemination to have both marriage partners listed on their babies’ birth certificates. The Arkansas Department of Health insisted that an old state law forbade them from listing a nonbiological parent on a birth certificate. Pulaski Circuit Judge Timothy Fox said the Obergefell decision on gay marriages assured such couples that they could enjoy the same parenting privileges as heterosexual couples, which included having both of them listed as the child’s parents on birth certificates. The Arkansas Supreme Court reversed Fox’s decision 6–1, although there was some disagreement among the six about how far the opinion should go. Only Danielson dissented, and the majority opinion ridiculed him. Danielson wrote that both the federal decision in Obergefell and Arkansas’s own dismissal order in the Wright case made it clear that a birth certificate was a benefit associated with marriage and that it should be extended to same-sex couples the same as heterosexual couples, as the state constitution promised. The majority opinion not only criticized Danielson’s dissent but also Judge Fox’s lamentations in his original decision, and it proposed some discipline of Fox for his official comments. Some of Judge Fox’s language might have been unfortunate, Danielson wrote, but the majority’s attempt to censure him was worse.

For the first two decades of the new century, the courts were perpetually confronted with disputes over the extent to which lethal drugs constituted cruel and unusual punishment for people convicted of capital crimes. To avoid the state prison having to disclose the source of drugs that were to be used to execute inmates (drug manufacturers were trying to prevent states from using their medicines to kill people rather than save them), the state enacted a law prohibiting such disclosure so that drugmakers could not seek to avoid having their medicines used to kill a person. A prisoner facing execution that was scheduled by Governor Asa Hutchinson challenged the law as a violation of the constitutional prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment because neither the drugmaker, the condemned man, nor the public could know how the drug would induce death. Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen barred the state from engaging in such illegal secrecy while it proceeded with an execution. The Arkansas Supreme Court issued a temporary stay of the judge’s order. Danielson dissented, saying Griffen’s order was patently correct. Danielson would soon leave the court, but the lethal-drug dispute plagued the court for the rest of the decade.

Danielson also participated in the final resolution of one of the most notorious crime cases in modern Arkansas history—the convictions of the West Memphis Three: three teenagers who were convicted of murdering three eight-year-old boys in West Memphis (Crittenden County) and leaving their mutilated bodies in a water-filled ditch in 1994. Damien Echols was sentenced to death and Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr. to life imprisonment, although the state produced no evidence of their guilt. Their convictions seemed to hinge upon the testimony of a man claiming to be an expert on satanic cults, who suggested that the teenagers probably were Satan worshipers. Seventeen years later, the Arkansas Supreme Court unanimously ordered the men’s freedom under what was commonly called an Alford Plea, where their convictions would be overturned and a new trial ordered, but with the understanding that the new trial would almost certainly result in their innocence. To avoid the trial, the men would enter a guilty plea and immediately go free for having already served prison time. Justice Ronald Sheffield wrote the decision, and Danielson and five others concurred.

Danielson was the lone dissenter in another controversial human-rights case, Jackson v. Norris (2011), in which the state Supreme Court defied a precedent established for youthful offenders by the U.S. Supreme Court. The Arkansas appellate court held that the trial court had properly sentenced a fourteen-year-old boy to life imprisonment without parole for being present with an older cousin and friend at Blytheville (Mississippi County) when one of his youthful companions decided to rob a video store and shot and killed a clerk. Although the fourteen-year-old did not carry out the shooting and was only present and fled with the other two, the Arkansas court said it was proper to give him the same maximum punishment as the older shooter because a statute passed by the Arkansas General Assembly allowed it. The U.S. Supreme Court had said otherwise for youthful offenders, and Danielson said Arkansas was obliged to do the same, both as a matter of law—the supremacy clause and the constitutional prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment—and of simple humanity.

After Danielson retired from the Supreme Court in 2016, he and his wife returned to Booneville, where they went into private practice with their son, Erik Danielson, and Paul’s youngest brother, David Danielson. The firm established offices at Booneville and Fayetteville (Washington County).

For additional information:
Corriher, Billy. “Putting Equality to a Vote: Individual Rights, Judicial Elections, and the Arkansas Supreme Court.” University of Arkansas at Little Rock Law Review 39, no. 4 (2017): 591–613. Online at (accessed April 19, 2023).

Willems, Spencer. “High Court’s Danielson to Retire.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, May 27, 2015, pp. 1B, 10B.

Ernest Dumas
Little Rock, Arkansas


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