Reuben William (R. W.) Robins (1883–1949)

Reuben William (R. W.) Robins was a highly successful trial lawyer who practiced in state and federal courts for thirty-three years and started a bank in his hometown of Conway (Faulkner County). He then spent the last six and a half years of his life as a justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court, continuing to write opinions on his sickbed until a few days before his death. Robins and his older brother, Francis E. “Frank” Robins, who together with his heirs owned and published the daily Log Cabin Democrat newspaper in Conway for a century, were prominent citizens and political leaders of the city.

Their parents, J. William Robins and Minnie Freeman Robins, who were farmers, moved from Shelby County, Tennessee, to Conway in 1880. R. W. Robins was born on May 21, 1883. He went to school in Conway, attended Hendrix College for two years—at thirteen, he was the college’s youngest student—and studied at a law school in Little Rock (Pulaski County) sponsored by the Arkansas Industrial University, as the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County) was then known. He also studied law with Samuel Frauenthal in Conway and then became his partner. Frauenthal later became the first Jewish person to serve on the state Supreme Court.

Robins was licensed to practice law in 1909 and married Beatrice Powell of Milan, Tennessee, with whom he had two daughters. For many years, he was a partner of George W. Clark, who was circuit judge for the Seventeenth Circuit from 1919 until 1927. Robins and his brother Frank became active in the Democratic Party. Robins held many honorary positions in the party—on its county and state central committees, and attending national nominating conventions as a delegate—but never sought office until he ran for and was elected to the Arkansas Supreme Court at the age of fifty-nine.

He had a heavy trial practice, often representing people who were injured at work. With Frank Pace—a Harvard College law school graduate who later became director of the U.S. Bureau of the Budget, the nation’s third Secretary of the Army, and chief executive officer of General Dynamics Corporation—Robins sued the Missouri Pacific Railroad for Alexander Montgomery, a brakeman who was thrown against a desk, fracturing six ribs and causing severe internal injuries, when the engineer tried to stop the ninety-seven-car train suddenly near El Dorado (Union County). The case (Missouri Pacific v. Montgomery, 1932) went to the Supreme Court, which agreed that Robins had proved that Missouri Pacific should be held responsible for the unwise decision by its conductor to try to stop the train suddenly. The court awarded Montgomery $12,500 for his medical bills and suffering. The railroad appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court but lost.

In the same year, at the nadir of the Great Depression, a series of bank failures left Faulkner County without a bank. Robins helped organize the First National Bank of Conway and served as its president for six years while continuing to practice law.

In the summer of 1942, Justice Thomas H. Humphreys announced that he was retiring from the Arkansas Supreme Court, and Robins filed as a candidate for the seat in the Democratic primary. Robert A. Leflar, a renowned professor at the University of Arkansas School of Law in Fayetteville and later its dean, also filed for the seat. Leflar would explain that Robins had beaten him by having a more common surname and better party connections. (Democratic Party nominations in those days were tantamount to election.) Seven years later, when Robins died, Governor Sid McMath appointed Leflar to finish his term.

Robins’s sympathy for the plight of working people was manifest in a famous case that arose from a strike at the Southern Cotton Oil Mill at Little Rock in 1945. The Arkansas General Assembly in 1943 had enacted a law making union officials criminally responsible for any violence around a picketed plant, regardless of who started the violence. A strikebreaker stabbed a union man to death on the picket line, but the prosecutor, following the statute, charged union officials with the crime, and they were convicted in circuit court. When their appeal (Cole and Jones v. State) reached the Supreme Court in 1949, shortly before Robins’s illness and death, the Supreme Court upheld the convictions of the union men, six to one. Robins cast the lone dissenting vote.

A 1947 case involving a disputed election in which Justice Robins, a noted Democrat, issued a strong opinion that favored a Democratic politician illustrated the problem of partisan judicial elections. John Robert Dotson of Huntsville (Madison County), a Republican candidate for sheriff of Madison County, sought a mandamus (a judicial remedy) from the circuit judge to force the county election commission, made up of two Democrats and a Republican, to count all the disputed absentee ballots, which Dotson thought would make him sheriff instead of the Democrat, Berry Denny. The election was so close that a victory would hinge on who won most of about 200 absentee ballots. The judge refused to issue the mandamus because he said the Democratic commissioners had made a plausible case that about 150 of the absentee ballots were illegal owing to some flaw in the way they were cast. The Supreme Court, which split four to three, said the judge should have issued the mandamus and forced the counting and certification of all the absentee ballots. Writing for the minority of three justices, Robins said the election commissioners had carried out their duties under the law to the letter by judging the ballots to be legally flawed and uncountable. He wrote: “Under the holding of the majority that election officials may be required to count votes which they, in the exercise of their discretion, have found to be invalid, it may occur that a candidate will be denied an office which he has fairly won by illegal votes being counted for his adversary, in a court proceeding to which he is not a party.”

Of course, all seven justices, not just Robins, were elected as Democrats. Regardless, Sheriff Denny, the Democrat, finished his term. Eventually, in 2000, the state constitution was amended to make elections for trial and appellate judgeships nonpartisan and to bar judges and judicial candidates from partisan activities.

In early May 1949, Robins became grievously ill but continued to write two or three opinions a week at his home and send them to the Supreme Court at the Arkansas State Capitol by his secretary. He had a relapse and died on June 30, 1949. He is buried in Oak Grove Cemetery in Conway.

Chief Justice Griffin Smith, known for his ornate opinions and flowery eulogies about his colleagues, waxed with unusual eloquence about his friend and associate. “Judge Robins brought to the Supreme Court the wisdom of a profound student, the legal experience of nearly half a century of varied litigation embracing all the forms of practice, from trial before a justice of the peace to oral argument of important cases in Washington,” Smith said. “His marvelous capacity for quickly grasping the details of an intricate problem, his inclination to cut through technicalities and reach a just conclusion, his reverence for fundamentals of the constitution—these and other attributes of greatness accounted for the values he brought to the court….He gave himself, of his means, of his fine spirit, freely, humbly and because he believed in goodness and in the dignity of man.”

For additional information:
“R. W. Robins, Associate Justice, Dies.” Arkansas Gazette, July 1, 1949, p. 10A.

Ernest Dumas
Little Rock, Arkansas

Last Updated: 04/08/2022

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