Childhood encounter with law influenced judge’s career

By Emily Van Zandt Originally Published November 11, 2012 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated November 9, 2012 at 9:04 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: Curt Youngblood

Judge Josephine Hart, who lives in Mountain View, was elected to the Arkansas Supreme Court in May and currently serves on the Arkansas Court of Appeals.

When Judge Josephine ‘Jo’ Linker Hart is sworn in as an Arkansas Supreme Court justice in January, it will mark the peak of a career that started in the same state more than 40 years ago.

Arkansas has always been home for Hart, and she’s proud of her long tradition in the state.

“This is a state of real people,” Hart said.

Hart was born in her grandmother’s home in Perryville. She moved with her family back to her father’s farm in Russellville when she was just a few days old. Her family raised cattle and grew cucumbers for the Atkins Pickle Co. The family land, Hart said, was part of a land grant offered to members of the Cherokee Nation who agreed to move prior to the forced relocation of American Indians in the 1830s. Members on both sides of Hart’s family were Cherokee, including her mother’s father.

The family continued to live off their land until she was 9 years old. At that time, the state was looking to build a dam and create Lake Dardanelle, right on Hart’s family land.

“It was devastating,” said Hart, who now lives in Mountain View. “I just didn’t really understand how you could take somebody’s livelihood and make it a lake for somebody to drive a boat on.”

Hart’s parents hired a lawyer, but the lawyer didn’t fight the eminent domain condemnation that would take all of the family’s farmland, leaving just enough hill land to maintain a home. Her father was forced to go into lumber work.

“It made me know that I was going to be a lawyer,” Hart said, “because you certainly didn’t want to be a farmer.”

Hart continued to live in Russellville until after she graduated from Arkansas Tech University. Though she knew law school was the next logical step, getting a scholarship as a female law student in 1965 “wasn’t going to happen,” Hart said.

So Hart looked to the military as a way into a law career. She was granted a direct commission to the Army as a second lieutenant after passing rigorous academic, psychological and physical exams.

“I grew up on a farm with brothers, so being able to run a combat test, for me, wasn’t a big deal,” Hart said.

On July 3, 1966, Hart left for the Army headquarters in Japan. It was nearing the height of the Vietnam War, and Hart found herself over 500 people as chief of the unit’s administration division. All of the correspondence, classified printed materials and publications went through her, including leaflets that were dropped from planes onto Vietnam. While there, she was promoted to captain. For much of her two years, Hart was the only female officer at the headquarters.

“I was a junior captain in a senior major’s spot, and it had never been filled by a woman before,” Hart said. “But I never had any problems with it. It was a seven-days-a-week, 24-hours-a-day operation, and you just did your job.”

It wasn’t the last time she’d be outnumbered by men in her job. Hart left Vietnam in 1969, joining the Army Reserve (where she’d serve for more than 20 years, retiring as a colonel) and starting law school at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. She went through her time in school with determination, becoming one of the first women at the university to write for its law review. When she started her courses, there were two other women in her class. One dropped out after a year. The other female student graduated, but never practiced law.

In 1971, Hart graduated and was invited to go to Little Rock and work as a law clerk for Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Frank Holt.

“I had fully intended to go back into the military,” Hart said.

But she stayed in Little Rock. Though law clerks at the time only stayed for a year, Hart was asked to stay on for almost two years before she felt the pull to head back to northern Arkansas.

“I really wanted to go into private practice,” Hart said. “I wanted to be of service to the people.”

She immediately jumped into work representing people in the Batesville area whose lands were being condemned, as the state was opening up the Blanchard Spring Caverns area. The issues reminded her of the problems her family had faced years before with their own farmland.

“How can they take someone who has lived on a farm all their life and say, ‘Well, that’s of little or no value,’” Hart said. “Then they have all the money, and you don’t have any.”

Hart decided to stay in Batesville, joining a local private law firm, later known as Gregg, Hart and Farris. She’d end up working with the firm for more than 20 years before trying her hand at something she thought she’d never be a part of: politics. In 1999, she was elected as a judge to the Arkansas Court of Appeals.

“I didn’t get into the campaign because I wanted to,” Hart said. “I had gotten a letter from a lawyer from Marshall who said he was running. But I had practiced law all over the area, and I realized, ‘I don’t think this man’s ever tried a lawsuit.’”

Hart began looking for someone in the area to run against him. But when someone finally asked her, “Why don’t you just run?” she stepped up to the task. Hart had seven weeks to campaign in a 19-county race. But having tried cases in nearly all of those counties meant her name was already fairly well known.

“I’d take off and drive, stopping at all the stores and coffee shops and cafes along the way,” Hart said. She got in touch with community leaders, churches and local clubs. It was a strategy that worked, and in 1999, she found herself in Little Rock again as a judge.

But the job wasn’t always ideal. When she first started, “it was awful,” Hart said. “I really missed the practice of law. Instead of being in front of a jury and talking, you’re reading books and briefs.”

Her attitude slowly changed as she realized the benefits of her new position. Now, Hart could help impact the shape of the law.

“In practicing law, you have one case, and the object is to present the case in the light most favorable to the client,” Hart said. “But when you get to be an appellate judge, you’re worried about what the law is and where it’s going.”

In 2002, Hart ran unopposed and began a new, eight-year term. In 2010, she ran again in a tight race, and won.

“After I had done the 2010 campaign, there just wasn’t going to be enough hours in the day for me to do another campaign,” Hart said.

Her mother had come to live with her after an illness, and as primary caregiver, Hart was struggling to divide her time between Little Rock and her home in Mountain View. When her mother died in September 2011, Hart and her family began to wonder if running for the state Supreme Court was something she was meant to do.

“After Thanksgiving that year, I decided to run,” Hart said. “I was going to get on the ballot by petition, and from December to Jan. 2, I had to get 10,000 signatures.”

Through Christmas, New Year’s and the Cotton Bowl, Hart and her family and supporters braved the cold in community parking lots and on sidewalks to gather the names they needed. By Jan. 23, they had collected more than 16,000 signatures.

“I thought the campaign was going very well, but I did not expect to win by over 65 percent of the vote,” Hart said.

When January rolls around, Hart expects many of her family and friends to make the trip to Little Rock for her swearing-in ceremony. But the most important face in the crowd will be her husband of more than 40 years, Brook Hart.

Jo Hart and Brook, now 78, met when she was working in Batesville. She was helping with an adoption for a friend of Brook’s, and the couple hit it off.

On Aug. 23, just a few months after Hart won her election for the Arkansas Supreme Court, Brook was diagnosed with cancer.

At one point, the doctors gave him only a few days to live. They called Hart at work in Little Rock and told her to drive to the hospital in Batesville right away.

“He had small-cell carcinoma that had metastasized, and they said they couldn’t give him chemo because of a surgery he’d gone through,” Hart said. But then she started doing research.

“I called back and said, ‘Yes, we can, and we’re going to do it tomorrow,’” Hart said.

Thirty-five days later, she was able to take her husband home again. Though he’s still going through chemotherapy treatments, Hart said he’s doing much better now, with a good team supporting him. And with someone like Hart as cheerleader on that team, you couldn’t ask for much more.

Staff writer Emily Van Zandt can be reached at (501) 399-3688 or evanzandt@arkansasonline.com.

Staff Writer Emily Van Zandt can be reached at 501-399-3688 or emily@syncweekly.com.

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