William David Newbern (1937–)

William David Newbern, who chased the twin passions of music and law, devoted a career to soldiering, teaching, judging, and being a troubadour. He taught law, spent eighteen months as a judge on the first Arkansas Court of Appeals, served fourteen years on the Arkansas Supreme Court, and was a state utility regulator, a special master for the Supreme Court, and manager of a folk music and cultural center in the Arkansas Ozarks. He retired from the Supreme Court in 1998 to devote more of his energies to music. He sang and played several instruments in many groups covering many genres.

David Newbern was born on May 28, 1937, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. His father, Charles Banks Newbern, was a salesman and businessman, and his mother, Mary Frances Harding Newbern, was a schoolteacher. His father worked for Firestone Tire and Rubber Company in Oklahoma City when Newbern was born, and the family moved to Amarillo, Texas, and then to Little Rock (Pulaski County), where he started school. Newbern, his parents’ only child, moved with his mother to Fayetteville (Washington County) when his father entered the U.S. Navy in World War II. They lived near his maternal grandparents and remained in Fayetteville after his father returned.

Newbern was heavily influenced by his grandfather, Arthur McCracken Harding, who was a professor and administrator of the University of Arkansas (UA) for forty-two years and its president from 1941 to 1947. Harding also was a musician, having played the piccolo and flute in the UA band. Newbern played the sousaphone/tuba in the Fayetteville high school band and was first chair in the Arkansas High School All-State Band in 1955.

Newbern studied history and law at UA and Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, and received an undergraduate law degree from UA in 1959 and a juris doctorate from UA in 1961. He also sang in the university’s production of the Italian opera Cavalleria Rusticana.

After graduation, he married Barbara Rigsby before taking a commission and spending nearly nine years in the Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps, mostly at the Pentagon in Washington DC and in Boston, Massachusetts, but also in Germany and South Korea. While at the Pentagon, he received an LLM degree (an advanced law degree in international law) from George Washington University, and he received a master’s degree in international relations from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts. His daughter, Laura Harding Newbern, was born while he was stationed at Frankfurt, Germany. Before he departed in 1968 for the United Nations Command in Seoul, Korea, his marriage ended in divorce.

Newbern married Fayetteville native Carolyn Lewis, who was teaching English at a junior college in Delaware, and they returned to Fayetteville in 1970, where he taught law at UA. He was acting dean of the law school for a period in 1972–73.

Late in 1973, Charley Sandage, a songwriter and folk musician and historian who played in a string band with Newbern, encouraged him to become the first administrator of the Ozark Folk Center, the music and cultural center at Mountain View (Stone County), which had been built with a grant from the federal Economic Development Administration and made an Arkansas state park. Mountain View was riven by deep political and cultural factions, and the Folk Center was controversial among local citizens as well as among state legislators. Newbern took the job for about six months, during which he convinced Governor Dale Bumpers to give $40,000 from his emergency fund to keep the center afloat during its first winter of operation (after its woefully underfunded first summer tourist season) and pacified the warring factions. He returned to the law school in 1974. A daughter, Alistair Elizabeth Newbern, was born that year.

At the law school in 1974 and 1975, as chair of the faculty appointments committee, Newbern supervised the interview and hiring of aspiring law professor and future governor and president Bill Clinton. Clinton’s soon-to-be wife Hillary Rodham joined the faculty shortly thereafter. When voters in 1978 approved a constitutional amendment creating an intermediate court of appeals, Newbern asked Governor Clinton to appoint him as one of the six temporary judges who would set up the new court. He spent eighteen months as an appellate judge. Because he served as an appointed judge, he was then ineligible to run for the position. He returned again to Fayetteville after the state elected the permanent judges to the new court in 1980. He wrote Arkansas Civil Practice and Procedure, a book popular with Arkansas attorneys, and served on a committee that developed rules of civil procedure, which the Arkansas Supreme Court adopted.

In 1982, he ran for circuit judge in Washington County against Judge Paul Jameson and was narrowly defeated. Two years later, he ran for a vacant seat on the Supreme Court and defeated two candidates. Since judicial candidates were not supposed to take stands on legal issues, Newbern took his guitar and sang folk songs at political rallies. Citing ethics rules, he refused the demand of his runoff opponent that they debate the death penalty, pornography, school consolidation, and other potential controversial issues before the court.

Newbern brought an academic manner to the court’s internal proceedings, sometimes bringing a flip chart to the court’s weekly conference to lay out the issues in a case. Justice John I. Purtle would remark sarcastically, “Oh, the professor’s going to the blackboard again.” But his fourteen years on the court were a period of unusual collegiality and unanimity, except for the frequent dissents by the populist Purtle.

Newbern retired in 1998, mainly because he yearned to spend more time on musical pursuits. He and Sandage played in a folk-music quintet called Sugarhill through the 1970s and 1980s, with Newbern as a lead singer and playing banjo, mandolin, and guitar. In 1993, he became the founding president of the board of directors of the Little Rock Wind Symphony, in which he played principal tuba.

The long-running lawsuit Lake View School District No. 25 v. Huckabee, which began in Pulaski County Circuit Court and reached the Arkansas Supreme Court once while Newbern was a justice, landed in the state’s high court several more times in the fourteen years after Newbern retired. In January 2004—when the deadline arrived for the state to satisfy court orders that the state comply with constitutional requirements for equitable, adequate, and efficient schools—the Arkansas Supreme Court appointed Newbern and Bradley D. Jesson, the chief justice when Lake View was before the court in 1996, to examine what the Arkansas General Assembly and governor had done and to determine if they had complied with the constitutional mandate. The masters reported that the legislature had made substantial progress. They were appointed a second time and found the state out of compliance in several ways. A third and final report by Newbern and Jesson in 2007 found the state in compliance, and the court declared the schools to be operating constitutionally.

Governor Mike Beebe appointed Newbern to the state Public Service Commission in 2007 to sit on one case, the application by Southwestern Electric Power Company (SWEPCO) and what is now Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas to build a $1.3 billion coal-fired power plant in Hempstead County to supply power for Texas and parts of Arkansas. One member of the commission was about to take a job with the cooperative, and the governor thought she should not participate in the case. She resigned from the commission and was replaced for the SWEPCO case by Newbern. The commission voted 2–1 to grant the permit to build the plant. Newbern dissented, saying that the companies had not complied with the law and that the commission should be taking the lead in curtailing rather than furthering pollution near important natural areas. Ultimately, the Arkansas Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court unanimously agreed with Newbern. However, by then, the John W. Turk Power Plant was nearing completion, and the companies began operating it as a merchant plant and selling power to other states, which did not require state approval. Thereafter, Newbern was again appointed a temporary commissioner to replace a permanent member who was away.

Newbern and his wife live primarily in Little Rock but spend part of their time in Fayetteville in a home he inherited and renovated. He plays string instruments with local musicians and tuba with Arkansas Winds Community Concert Band.

For additional information:
Blomeley, Seth. “Masters Scold State’s Efforts on Education.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, October 4, 2005, p. 1A.

Dumas, Ernie. Interview with William David Newbern. Arkansas Supreme Court Project. Arkansas Supreme Court Historical Society. https://www.arcourts.gov/sites/default/files/oralhistories/NEWBERN%20INTERVIEW.pdf (accessed October 14, 2020).

Frago, Charlie. “Retired Judges Oppose Ballot Measure to Limit Adoptions.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, October 7, 2008, p. 11A.

Hill, Jack W. “William David Newbern.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, December 5, 2004, pp. 1D, 5D.

“His Honor Returns.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, August 16, 2007, p. 18B.

Ernest Dumas
Little Rock, Arkansas


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