Robert Foreman (Bobby) Fussell (1938–2018)

Robert Foreman (Bobby) Fussell had a long career as a lawyer championing the legal rights of disabled veterans and the deaf, prosecuting prominent state political figures, and presiding over federal bankruptcy courts. He was a U.S. bankruptcy judge for twenty years, most of them as the chief bankruptcy judge of the Arkansas courts.

Bobby Fussell was born on January 1, 1938, at Forrest City (St. Francis County), one of three sons of James V. Fussell Jr. and Dorothy Hall Fussell. His father ran a cotton gin and a service station. Fussell got a degree in business in 1959 and a law degree in 1965 from the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County). He then became a U.S. Army officer for two years and an attorney for the National Labor Relations Board in Kansas for two years before opening a private practice in Little Rock (Pulaski County), specializing in labor relations.

His earliest commitment was to spend forty percent of his time giving free representation to disabled veterans and the deaf, who were in need of a lot of assistance when they found themselves in legal difficulties. He went to night school for nine weeks to learn sign language so that he could communicate with deaf clients. When he learned that insurance companies put deaf people in a high-risk pool for automobile insurance, which made policies too expensive for them, he prepared a lawsuit against the companies, contending that there was no evidence that people with hearing problems were more prone to accidents and that the policy violated the equal-protection and due-process rights of the hearing impaired. The companies settled by dropping the discriminatory policy and agreeing to use actuarial data to determine the premiums.

While representing a deaf woman in the U.S. District Court, Fussell had a sign-language interpreter in court to help him gather facts from his client. He lost an appeal because the court reporter, who did not understand sign language, failed to incorporate all of Fussell’s facts into the transcript of the proceedings. As a result, he was left without facts in the record to support his appeal. In response to this, he wrote a bill requiring judges in all lawsuits involving deaf citizens to appoint a competent court reporter who understood sign language and the signs for legal terms. The Arkansas General Assembly enacted the statute in 1979, and it was subsequently adopted by all the states. The Arkansas Bar Association in 1981 gave Fussell an award for improving legal services for the deaf.

In 1968, Fussell became an assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas, where he specialized in prosecuting white-collar crimes. He convicted two prominent state senators: Guy H. “Mutt” Jones of Conway (Faulkner County) and Q. Byrum Hurst of Hot Springs (Garland County). Jones was convicted of income-tax evasion.

Hurst, who had been president pro tempore of the Senate, was convicted of making false statements and misusing bank funds in a scheme to take control of banks. Hurst and his attorney proved to be formidable for Fussell. Hurst was first acquitted on tax-evasion charges, but Fussell then had him indicted on bank-fraud charges, first in Arkansas. When Hurst’s lawyer goaded Fussell, saying that he could never convict Hurst in Garland County, Fussell learned that Hurst was using the same scheme to gain control of banks in Missouri. He had himself appointed a special U.S. attorney in Missouri and got a grand-jury indictment of Hurst in Kansas City. Hurst pled guilty there, and Fussell had the Arkansas charges dismissed.

One of Fussell’s first cases as a U.S. prosecutor was the indictment of Jim Bruton, the superintendent of the Tucker Unit of the state penitentiary, who—along with six inmate “trusties”—was accused of mistreatment of prisoners in the use of a large leather strap and other torture devices, including the infamous Tucker Telephone. Fussell spent months in the penitentiary interviewing inmates about the brutalities instigated by Bruton. In his closing argument to the jury, Fussell said that if the jurors condoned the cruelty by Bruton and the prisoners, “May the Lord have mercy on them on their judgment day.”

The jury acquitted six inmates who were following Bruton’s orders but could not come to a conclusion on the charges against Bruton. Inside the chambers of U.S. District Judge J. Smith Henley, Bruton’s attorney, Reggie Eilbott of Pine Bluff (Jefferson County)—who had been Senator Hurst’s attorney in the bank prosecution—told the judge that the Tucker Telephone “wouldn’t hurt a fly.” As the device was stored in Henley’s chambers, Fussell suggested a test. Judge Henley handed the wire to Eilbott while Fussell cranked the phone’s magneto vigorously. Eilbott screamed and admitted, “I guess it would hurt a fly.”

Bruton agreed to plead no contest to violating prisoners’ rights without a new trial. The Civil Rights Act of 1871 required a maximum sentence of a year in prison and a $1,000 fine. Judge Henley waived the prison sentence because he said Bruton would be killed by inmates, and he gave him a year’s probation. He then appointed two Little Rock lawyers, Jack Holt Jr. and Philip Kaplan, to represent prisoners, which led to the court’s declaring, in the cases of Finney v. Hutto and Holt v. Sarver, that confinement in the Arkansas penitentiary constituted cruel and unusual punishment.

Federal district judges appointed Fussell U.S. bankruptcy judge in 1983, and he soon became the state’s chief bankruptcy judge. Soon afterward, he presided over the bankruptcy of Fairfield Communities, Inc., which was the fourth-largest Chapter 11 bankruptcy case in U.S. history. Fairfield, a large residential and commercial land developer, emerged from the bankruptcy after three years and became the nation’s second-largest time-share residential developer.

When Congress created a divisional bankruptcy court in northwestern Arkansas, Fussell resigned as chief judge and took the new judgeship in Fayetteville. He served as a bankruptcy judge for twenty years, retiring in 2003 after suffering a stroke in December 2002. He never married and had no children.

Fussell died at the assisted-living facility where he lived in Little Rock on May 1, 2018.

For additional information:
Brandon, Phyllis. “Robert Foreman Russell.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, December 28, 1997, pp. 1D, 4D.

Davis, Andy. “In Courtroom Reception, Peers Honor Retiring Judge Fussell.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, December 18, 2002, p. 3B.

“Judge’s Friends Bid Bon Voyage.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Northwest Edition, July 17, 2005, p. 41.

King, Cyd. “Ceremony Marks Naming of Scholarship for Fussell.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, November 13, 2005.

Satter, Linda. “Friends Mourn Former Judge, 80.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, May 2, 2018, p. 2B.

Ernest Dumas
Little Rock, Arkansas


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