Judge knows small-town joys and great tragedies

Daniel Marsh Originally Published February 10, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated February 8, 2013 at 11:38 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: Curt Youngblood

Randy Hill is the state district judge serving in the Clark County seat of Arkadelphia. His position now is much different than his first job. Instead of his chambers, Hill called radio station KVOK in Malvern his office. There, he began working as a disc jockey at the age of 14.

Front & Center - Judge Randy Hill

Judge Randy Hill talks about the types of cases he sees in court. (By Rusty Hubbard)
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— Randy Hill does not find it difficult talking about the things that go through a person’s mind in the face of certain death.

“You become very focused,” he said. “You think about what’s important. You don’t think about that Mercedes you should have bought. What matters is your family, your relationships, your standing with your Maker. The rest is just stuff.”

Hill, who is the state district judge in Arkadelphia, has had reason to contemplate those things that matter most. He was among the survivors of American Airlines Flight 1420, which crashed at Little Rock National Airport on June 1, 1999. Nine people were killed in the crash, and 80 were injured.

Two years later, on Sept. 11, 2001, he witnessed the destruction of the World Trade Center towers while flying out of LaGuardia Airport in New York City. On both occasions, Hill’s wife, Jessica, was expecting. Their first daughter, Claire, was born three weeks after the 1999 crash.

“I now have a rule — I don’t fly when my wife is pregnant,” Hill said with a laugh.

Hill has served as district judge since 1999 and has been a lawyer in Arkadelphia since 1985. The Malvern native said he enjoys sitting in a “neutral” capacity as much as he enjoyed prosecuting cases earlier in his career. Growing up, he had only two career choices.

“I was the first in my family to go to college, and I felt I needed to do something substantive,” he said. “I was either going to be a doctor or a lawyer. Well, I hated dissecting cats, thus I thought the lawyer route would be better.”

College and law school were preceded by a mini-career of a different sort — in radio.

“I was a disc jockey at KVOK in Malvern from the eighth grade until I graduated from Ouachita Baptist University,” Hill said. “I started working as a disc jockey at age 14. I was the youngest disc jockey in Arkansas.”

Hill had recorded commercials for his mother Hazel’s downtown café, H&H Snack Bar. That experience helped him land a job spinning records.

“You had to take a test to get a third-class broadcast license,” Hill said. “I took the test and passed it, which was a miracle. It was a big deal because without a license, you couldn’t work on the weekends without an engineer.”

Hill said he learned “everything about how the station worked,” eventually landing a shift of his own.

“I announced on air that Elvis was dead. I heard the bell go off on the teletype machine — a bulletin out of Memphis: Elvis had died,” he said. “I pulled the copy, read it three or four times, then immediately pulled our Elvis music and played that for the rest of the day.”

He said growing up in Malvern was “like living in Mayberry.”

“Everybody knew everybody. My father, Herman, worked at a local plant, and I was into Boy Scouts and sports,” Hill said. “People were disappointed I wanted to be a lawyer; they thought I’d be the next weather guy on Channel 4.”

Hill went to Ouachita Baptist on a tennis scholarship.

“I was good enough to be on the team, and I played for about a year,” Hill said, “but I had to work and was taking a lot of hours. I couldn’t keep [playing] and stay in school.”

Hill majored in history and political science at Ouachita and received his juris doctorate from the Bowen School of Law at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Though he clerked in “a big law firm” in West Memphis, he said he wasn’t happy in that environment.

“I saw myself as a county-seat lawyer. I wanted to get back here,” Hill said.

He returned to Arkadelphia in 1985, serving as a deputy prosecutor for two years, first in Clark County, then in Hot Spring County.

“I did a lot of litigation in Arkadelphia, and I was president of the Arkansas Trial Lawyers Association,” Hill said.

He said he enjoyed being a prosecutor.

“I’ve always been totally in awe of the investigative process,” Hill said. “People don’t really know what the police do; they just know they arrested so-and-so. I think most folks just know what they see on TV.”

Hill said his dockets have “exploded” over the years, due mostly to new laws on the books.

“It’s not all speeding tickets. I’ll sometimes have a 60-page call docket. We are getting more and more busy,” he said. “I do all the search warrants, all the arrest warrants. I’m Ghostbusters — who ya gonna call?”

Social media has also increased Hill’s workload.

“Facebook is the new bathroom wall,” he said. “Harassment cases used to be about somebody calling somebody else a bad name. Now it goes up on Facebook, and 100 people see it.”

Hill first ran for district judge in 1999, the year Flight 1420 almost cut short his life. The plane overran the runway in a heavy storm and crashed on the bank of the Arkansas River.

“Nobody knew anything was wrong until we hit the runway,” Hill said. “Next thing I knew, we crashed through the fencing, went off a 40-foot embankment, broke up and caught on fire.”

Hill escaped the flames by jumping out of a crack in the side panel of the demolished plane. Two little girls jumped out after him, and they sheltered behind a hay bale as the plane exploded.

“I was soaked in jet fuel and barefoot in the mud,” he said. “I was cut all to pieces and had some broken ribs. I found out I also had a deflated lung.”

At home a few hours later, Hill was awakened by a phone call — from the Today show, wanting to put him on the phone with Matt Lauer.

“It was crazy. I talked to the New York Times, and People magazine sent a photographer to follow me around,” Hill said. “I did The Sally Jesse Raphael Show with a woman who got shot by terrorists and a guy who was attacked by a grizzly bear.”

Hill said he felt obligated to speak on behalf of the other passengers.

“I thought it was obscene that we had flight rules that would make a pilot work a 15-hour day — as ours had. We had guys making horrible decisions,” he said. “The media wanted someone to talk to, and I thought I would do that and make the point — why are pilots made to do that?”

Hill relived the horror of the crash on 9/11, when, looking out over Manhattan from the window of a plane, he saw the second plane hit the World Trade Center.

“We were grounded immediately, and I ended up being trapped in New York for three days. I had only packed for one,” he said.

Court in Clark County was canceled because of Hill’s absence.

“I finally got hold of a limo service that drove me to Philadelphia. It was eerie because I did a complete loop around New York, and there wasn’t one other car on the road — just dump trucks. I got to Philadelphia, rented a car and drove home. I was never so happy to see the Mississippi River in all my life.”

Hill said he is happiest in Arkadelphia.

“I am so glad to have the opportunity to live here. Where else can you live and when you get out of court be in your deer stand in 14 minutes? Makes you feel sorry for everybody else.”

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