Robin French Wynne (1953–2023)

Robin F. Wynne was a lawyer and politician who spent forty-five years practicing in every branch of the law—as a litigator, prosecutor, law professor, and trial judge, and also as an elected member of both appellate branches of the judiciary: the Arkansas Court of Appeals and the Arkansas Supreme Court. He served two terms in the 1980s as a member of the Arkansas House of Representatives from his rural southern Arkansas district around Fordyce (Dallas County). Wynne joined the Supreme Court in 2015, just as the Arkansas appellate courts were entering a phase of partisanship that had begun to afflict the judiciary nationally and in many states. Although he had sought political offices as a Democrat, he was determined that partisanship would play no role in adjudicating issues before the court. He developed friendships with the three justices who had been elected with the backing of the Republican Party and also, in 2023, with the state’s new right-wing Republican governor, Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

Robin French Wynne was born on February 15, 1953, in Warren (Bradley County), one of four children of Thomas Duncan Wynne Jr. and Margaret Lucille West Wynne. He would become the third generation of lawyers in his family, his father and grandfather preceding him in southern Arkansas law practices. He grew up in Fordyce and graduated from Fordyce High School, where he was an athlete and a scholastic leader.

Wynne went to Harvard University, majored in history, and graduated cum laude in 1975. He entered the University of Arkansas School of Law in Fayetteville (Washington County) and received a juris doctorate in 1978. He was torn between the law and ministry all his life. He studied at Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology at Dallas in 1979 and 1980, and when he lived in Little Rock (Pulaski County) he was lay pastor at the tiny Redfield United Methodist Church south of the city and preached at a number of small churches near where he lived. He was also a lay leader at the liberal Pulaski Heights United Methodist Church in Little Rock.

He married Margaret Louise “Margo” Sanders, a native Missourian, in Dallas, Texas, in 1980. They had four sons.

Wynne joined the family law firm, Wynne and Wynne, in Fordyce, which aside from litigation meant the usual small-town duties, as Fordyce city attorney and deputy prosecutor for the Thirteenth Judicial District. In 1984, he ran for the state representative seat from parts of Dallas, Cleveland, and Lincoln counties and was elected that year and for a second term in 1986. He thought his region suffered economically, owing to the poor highways, and went to the Arkansas General Assembly to fight for a major highway program, which in 1986 also was the agenda of Governor Bill Clinton. Wynne was at the forefront in pushing through a cluster of bills raising tax rates and closing tax exemptions on a variety of motor-carrier expenses, including gasoline, diesel, and liquefied-petroleum fuels. Most of the bills—the largest a four-cent-a-gallon increase in motor-fuel taxes—required a three-fourths vote in both legislative houses. Together, they were the biggest hike in highway-building taxes in the state’s history, arguably larger than the five-cent-a-gallon increase in the gasoline tax in 1991.

Wynne’s other major contribution was effectively to stop the development of a low-level radioactive disposal site in southeastern Arkansas. Congress had required all fifty states to develop sites to dispose of low-level radioactive waste or to enter into compacts with other states in their region for the disposal sites. Arkansas and four other states in its compact identified six potentially suitable disposal sites in southeastern Arkansas. Wynne composed a legislative resolution, cosponsored by three other representatives, declaring that his neighboring counties were not a suitable site for the wastes because of water-table levels, annual rainfall, and other drainage and topographical conditions. The legislature adopted Wynne’s resolution without dissent.

In 1988, Wynne ran for the state Senate seat from his region against Senator James C. (Jim) Scott of Warren but lost narrowly. He was elected in 2004 to a district judgeship in Dallas County and served until 2010, when he ran unopposed for judge of the Court of Appeals to complete a term and then was reelected over opposition in 2012. In 2014, he ran for an open seat on the Arkansas Supreme Court to replace retiring justice Donald L. Corbin and narrowly defeated Tim Cullen, a Little Rock attorney, with the help of an ample campaign fund and a flood of last-minute “dark money” advertisements that attacked Cullen as a liberal without calling for Wynne’s election. Wynne professed to be mystified by the source of the ads. He was reelected in 2022 in a race against two arch-conservative Republicans who were backed by the state Republican Party: David Sterling and Chris Carnahan. Wynne defeated Carnahan decisively in the runoff.

In his eight years on the Supreme Court, Wynne wrote more than 200 opinions, including many very brief dissenting and concurring opinions, all of them unusually deferential and respectful of the colleagues with whom he was disagreeing. His opinions frequently endorsed the outcome of the majority opinions—whether to affirm or reverse trial-court decisions—but he was always compelled to point out that, while they reached the right decision, their legal reasons were invalid. A recurring dilemma for the court, especially after he joined it in 2015, was settling the conflict between two sections of the state constitution, one in the Declaration of Rights declaring the right of everyone to sue to redress grievances, and another—commonly called “sovereign immunity”—that seems to say that people could not sue the government to redress grievances caused by the government. The court takes sovereign-immunity cases almost yearly and is always divided with dissenting and concurring opinions. Wynne nearly always filed an opinion either dissenting on the outcome or else pointing out the reasoning errors. In a 2018 appeal of a lawsuit against the Arkansas Department of Human Services, Wynne wrote a dissent in which he again agreed with the outcome but said the majority relied on the wrong precedents. The court’s meandering decisions on sovereign immunity, he wrote, “have left our sovereign-immunity jurisprudence in a Gordian knot.”

When the court strayed into political waters, Wynne usually recorded a quiet dissent, as when the court granted a request by Attorney General Leslie Rutledge in 2021 to bar Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen from hearing capital cases filed in circuit court. Griffen, a minister who opposed executions and demonstrated silently against them, earlier had a lawsuit over execution drugs taken from him by the Supreme Court after he made a procedural ruling, although the new judge eventually reached the same conclusion as Griffen had. The court simply recorded its decision to grant Rutledge’s request without identifying the justices who favored it. Wynne and Chief Justice Dan Kemp, who dissented, were the only ones who recorded their votes.

In Wynne’s last opinions, just days before his death, he and Kemp again recorded their dissents in one of the most politically charged cases to reach the court in many years—whether to allow the Republican governor and legislature to ignore a constitutional mandate for when bills enacted by the governor and legislation could become law. It involved a massive law written by Governor Sanders’s office—the LEARNS Act—overhauling public education in the state to share state tax receipts for public education with parents of children in private and religious schools. Enacting the emergency clause would have prevented the public from circulating petitions in time to put the act before voters in 2024. A lawsuit pointed out that the House and Senate had not put the emergency clause to a separate vote, as the constitution clearly required. Five of the seven justices said the act should stay in effect until the courts made a final ruling on whether the legislature violated the constitution. One justice, Rhonda Wood, an unflaggingly dutiful Republican, said essentially that it was none of the courts’ business if the legislature chose to ignore the constitution. Wynne and Kemp wrote that it was proper for the court to restrain the state from implementing the LEARNS Act because the courts would likely find that the LEARNS Act violated the constitution. They seemed to say that they viewed it as a violation.

After moving to Little Rock, Wynne was an adjunct professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock William H. Bowen School of Law and Philander Smith College.

Wynne died on June 21, 2023. His ashes are interred at the Pulaski Heights United Methodist Church Columbarium in Little Rock.

For additional information:
Holt, Tony. “High Court’s Wynne, 70, Dies in Second Term.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, June 23, pp. 1A, 7A. Online at (accessed September 15, 2023).

Ledbetter, Richard. “Wynne Part of Fordyce Political Dynasty.” Pine Bluff Commercial, June 25, 2023, pp. 1, 3. Online at (accessed September 15, 2023).

“Robin French Wynne.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, June 25, 2023, p. 1K. Online at (accessed September 15, 2023).

Ernest Dumas
Little Rock, Arkansas


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