Thomas Miller (Tom) Mehaffy (1859–1944)

Tom Mehaffy was a self-educated schoolteacher, lawyer, and politician whose life at the age of sixty-seven was transformed by family tragedy into a distinguished career on the Arkansas Supreme Court. After fifteen years on the court during the Great Depression and the early stages of World War II, the aged and ailing justice retired in 1942, having earned the sobriquet “the Chief Dissenter” for his frequent disagreements with the other justices over the value that should be given to precedents. Mehaffy also founded what became Arkansas’s largest law firm, known in the twenty-first century as the Friday Law Firm in Little Rock (Pulaski County).

Thomas Miller Mehaffy was born on October 3, 1859, in Ripley, Mississippi, to Thomas Langley Mehaffy and Ruth Bradley Mehaffy. His father was a private in the Confederate army who joined Cobb’s Legion in DeKalb County, Georgia, but apparently died in one of a number of outbreaks of measles. The widow and the two children moved to the Hurricane community east of Benton (Saline County), where Mehaffy worked on farms and at other jobs to help support his seamstress mother and a younger sister. He had virtually no formal education, studying on his own after farm work, until at the age of nineteen he enrolled at Benton High School for a year. He passed an examination to be a teacher and began teaching school, eventually becoming the superintendent at Benton and, years later, president of the school board. He studied law books, and when he was admitted to the bar in 1889 at the age of thirty, he opened a practice in Benton.

Mehaffy married Anna A. Poe in 1884; they had four children. After her death, he married Mabel Holland, with whom he had four more.

At the same time that he opened his law practice, Mehaffy entered politics, a common step at the time for new lawyers. He served a term as mayor of Benton and was elected to the Arkansas House of Representatives in 1890 and to the Senate in 1892, serving one term in each chamber. The 1891, 1893, and 1895 legislative sessions culminated in the end of Reconstruction reforms and the passage of a series of laws (known as Jim Crow laws) ending even the slightest forms of racial integration in commerce and public facilities and restricting the voting rights of African Americans.

Mehaffy moved to Little Rock at the turn of the century and developed a busy practice. When the Boyle Building in downtown Little Rock was opened in 1909—at eleven stories, it was the state’s tallest building—he moved his growing firm into the “skyscraper.” The firm, known soon as Mehaffy, Reid, Donham and Mehaffy—the latter was his oldest son, James W. Mehaffy—represented corporations such as Missouri Pacific Railroad, American Bauxite Company, Standard Oil Company of Louisiana, and Wells Fargo & Company. He became involved with the Little Rock school system as soon as he arrived in town and twice served on the school board (1902–1907 and 1913–1916). He was elected as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1917–1918, served as president of the body, and was counted as one of the influential voices in the assembly. The document, full of modern constitutional reforms like suffrage for women, was compiled sporadically as World War I was ending and an influenza epidemic was ravaging the state, causing widespread criticism of the whole exercise. Turnout at the election in 1918 was small, and voters defeated the document.

In 1926, his son and junior partner, James Mehaffy, ran for one of two new seats on the expanded Arkansas Supreme Court and was elected. Eleven days later, the younger Mehaffy, at the age of thirty-nine, died in a car wreck at McGehee (Desha County). In January, before leaving office himself, Governor Tom J. Terral appointed the elder Mehaffy to fill his son’s Supreme Court seat until the 1928 election. Although he was sixty-nine years old in 1928, past retirement time for judges, Mehaffy ran to complete the eight-year term of his son and then was reelected in 1936.

The old jurist brought a new wisdom to the appellate bench, principally that the hoary doctrine of stare decisis—that precedents established by supreme courts, either national or state, were always to be followed unless some past judgment was found to clearly violate an elemental principle of justice—was passé. Mehaffy regularly dissented from the judgments of his colleagues, although he was known for his collegiality and wit.

A couple of decisions—one concerning the plight of Arkansans during the Great Depression and the second during the war buildup that followed—illustrate his judicial philosophy. In one case, he led the court in upholding the state government’s need to relieve the distress of desperate people in the Depression in spite of what appeared to be a constitutional prohibition. In the second, he joined a dissent to the state’s adherence to a precedent set by the U.S. Supreme Court that endorsed harsh government sanctions against a Christian sect that was widely accused of being unpatriotic.

In the first case, a lender sued in Pulaski County in 1933 to foreclose on a mortgage that was executed six years earlier, before the Depression, because the borrower had not been able to keep up with payments and then missed the deadline for responding to the suit. The legislature had just enacted a bill to delay such deadlines. The lender contended that the legislative act was unconstitutional because it violated Article II of the state constitution that prohibits the impairment of contracts. Contracts were supposed to be sacred under the law. “Act 21,” Mehaffy wrote, “is an emergency act passed for the relief or benefit of the citizens of Arkansas who are in destitute circumstances because of the public economic emergency.” He said the economy had sunk to the point that there was no market for the property in question. A home valued at $2,500 when the mortgage was executed could not be sold at foreclosure at even a fourth of that value. Nearly all banks had failed, and people could not borrow money or pledge property to pay their debts. Regardless of the contract clause in the constitution, the state had the right, even an obligation, to help such people, he said. He wrote: “Governments are created for the purpose of securing the rights of the citizens, and, if a government, during a period of such depression as we now have, could not protect its citizens, there would be no reason for its existence.”

Regarding the second case, shortly before the attack upon Pearl Harbor in 1941, Joe Johnson, a farmer with eight children at St. Joe (Searcy County), was arrested and charged with desecrating the American flag when he appeared at the county welfare office to obtain food for his family under the federal commodities program. The office manager had heard that Johnson was a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses sect, which believed that saluting the flag violated the Bible’s dictum against paying homage to anything but God. Johnson refused to salute the flag and made a short speech during which one hand seemed to touch the flag. Johnson was convicted of flag desecration and the state Supreme Court in 1942 upheld his conviction, 5–2 in Johnson v. State, relying on a precedent of the U.S. Supreme Court (Minersville School District v. Gobitis) that said the flag was a symbol of national unity, which was higher than any religious conviction, and that the school district was correct in expelling two boys who would not salute the flag.

Mehaffy and Chief Justice Griffin Smith, another frequent dissenter, dismissed the U.S. Supreme Court decision and the views of their five colleagues as violating a fundamental principle of democracy. “[T]he fact remains,” Griffin and Mehaffy wrote, “that we are engaged not only in a war of men, machines, and materials, but in a contest wherein liberty may be lost if we succumb to the ideologies of those who enforce obedience through fear, and who would write loyalty with a bayonet.” The U.S. Supreme Court two years later reversed its precedent and adopted the two Arkansas justices’ views.

Soon after the Johnson v. State decision, his health declining, Mehaffy resigned from the court. He died on October 20, 1944. He is buried in Oakland and Fraternal Historic Cemetery Park in Little Rock.

His son Pat Mehaffy followed his career path. He was an assistant attorney general and prosecuting attorney and led his father’s law firm starting in 1940. When President John F. Kennedy appointed him to the U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1963, the law firm, already the state’s largest, was Mehaffy, Smith and Williams.

For additional information:
“T. E. Mehaffy, Retired Jurist, Dies.” Arkansas Gazette, October 21, 1944, p. 9.

Ernest Dumas
Little Rock, Arkansas

Last Updated: 04/08/2022

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