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Rhonda Wood

‘Technology judge’ headed to Court of Appeals

— Circuit Judge Rhonda Wood of Conway suffered through piano lessons as a child just so she could watch Gilligan’s Island reruns at her teacher’s home.

A self-proclaimed “book nerd,” her parents didn’t have a television - by choice - when she and her two older brothers were growing up in Wisconsin.

“We’d rent one on presidential-election nights. I remember renting a TV for the Super Bowl,” she said.

And, she’d watch television while she waited for her older brother to finish his piano lesson.

Don’t feel too sorry for Wood - who moved to Conway in 1994 with her husband, Dr. Michael Wood, and their four children and finished her degree at Hendrix College.

All that reading paid off.

She graduated magna cum laude in 1996 from Hendrix, graduated from lawschool with highest honors and later made the top score on the Arkansas bar exam.

Wood, 42, was elected in May to the Arkansas Court of Appeals.

It’s the social interaction that Wood said she’ll miss the most when she leaves at the end of the year.

“I’m really going to miss my staff. I’ll probably cry that whole last week,” she said.

Judge Mike Maggio jokes that he’s her driver because when they attend civicorganization events, he offers to take his vehicle.

“She’s like a rock star, … and they’re like, ‘Who are you?’ I say, ‘Oh, I’m her driver,’” Maggio said.

Wood and Maggio joked back and forth in the hallway outside their offices in the old Presbyterian-church-turned-courtbuilding near downtown Conway.

Her office is full of framed photos of her family; their dog, a Jack Russell terrier named Harley; and even her staff.

She picked up a small trophy sitting among the photos.

It’s the March Madness award in a competition that includes Maggio and boththeir staffs to pick the most correct games in the NCAA basketball tournament.

Wood is this year’s champion.

“I love beating Judge Maggio every year,” she said, laughing. (She conceded that he did win once.)

She parades the trophy by his office once in a while, just to antagonize him, she said.

Also framed and hanging on the wall behind her desk are photos of her with U.S. Circuit Judge Morris Arnold and U.S.Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia.

“Justice Scalia is hilarious, almost like Maggio,” she said. “He’s a huge comedian.”

Maggio said Wood is “an extremely good egg to put up with me and my joking, my light-heartedness and my practical jokes - and she has given me a few back.”

“In all seriousness, it has been truly my distinct honor and pleasure to serve with her at the trial-court level and have the added bonus of sharing the office-suite complex,” he said.

“Without a doubt, one of the things that has made my job easier is the fact of having her in close proximity to visit with on a daily basis to bounce things off of and keep us both sane.”

Maggio said Wood has a strong work ethic and a desire to do her best, whether it’s in Teen Court, where she volunteers one night a week, daily court, “or even a March Madness bracket.”

He said although he will miss her, “I cannot wait to have her voice, and her vision and her viewpoint on the Court of Appeals, having somebody who has been at the trial-court level and knows what it’s like.”

Wood, whose husband is an obstetrician, said she always wanted to be a lawyer, but “never” wanted to be a judge.

“The thought never crossed my mind,” she said.

With her husband in practice by himself, law school was challenging - she often hauled the children with her to class at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock William H. Bowen School of Law.

“They can tell you which class they liked best,” she said.

A lot of times while attending her children’s soccer games, she was the mother highlighting passages in a law book.

“It was tough, but we made it work,” she said.

She made time to be the homeroom mom at Jim Stone Elementary School, too.

When she graduated from law school in 1999, she opened her own practice in Conway and served as an adjunct instructor at UALR.

Wood became assistant dean at the law school and sold her practice.

“I loved the students; I loved teaching,” she said. “I’m hoping with the Court of Appeals I can go back and teach.”

When Circuit Judge Linda Collier retired early, then-Gov. Mike Huckabee appointed Wood to the position in 2006.

“He knew I cared about kids,” she said. “I was just really honored. I thought this would be great, but I didn’t know if I’d like it.”

She did, and she ran for circuit judge in 2008, winning the seat to serve the 20th Judicial District, which includes Faulkner, Van Buren and Searcy counties.

Wood said she’s known statewide as the “technology judge.”

Her dad worked with computers - she said he was one of the first people to install scanners in grocery stores in the United States - and her family had a computer in the ’70s when few people did.

“It was in the basement, and it was huge,” she said, spreading her arms apart.

Improving technology is one of the first things she does in any job.

“I made a lot of changes at the law school,” she said, including making admissions an online process.

After she was appointed circuit judge, but before Collier left office, Wood received a grant to computerize the courtroom.

“We have one of the most high-tech courtrooms in the state for circuit judges,” she said.

Each lawyer’s seat has a monitor, and Wood creates the order, has the defendant read along with her on a screen, prints the order from the bench and sends ithome with the offender.

“It cuts out the, ‘I didn’t understand, judge,’” she said.

When she’s dealing with juveniles, she can use the computer in front of her to pull up information on every time the juvenile has been in court.

“It’s really efficient, and things just move,” Wood said, snapping her fingers.

Although Wood said she loves the complexity of civil cases, juvenile cases are the most satisfying to her.

“We change lives, and you couldn’t ask for anything better than that,” she said.

Faulkner County got one of the pilot juvenile drug courts in the state in 2009.

“We’ve had kids on crack cocaine at 11. People don’t expect that in Conway,” she said.

Wood gets a little teary-eyed recalling one woman who came through drug court as a teenager and is now drug-free and managing a business.

“She really is an amazing person,” Wood said.

Two years ago, Wood ran for the Court of Appeals and lost narrowly to incumbent Jo Hart.

Wood said she decided to run for the seat because she “got a little frustrated because a decision came down I wasn’t happy with.”

Wood terminated parental rights for a child whose mother was diagnosed as bipolar and schizophrenic, and the Court ofAppeals ruled to send the child back.

“I rewrote my decision, and it went back to the Court of Appeals, and they agreed with me,” she said. “The day the decision came down, the mother killed herself. My experience in court with her is she would have killed that child.”

When Wood ran for Court of Appeals this year, she won with 63 percent of the vote against Mitch Cash of Marshall.

Wood said she wants to bring her experience with juveniles to the court.

Her new role will be “completely” different, she said, from the drastically smaller staff she’ll have to less social interaction.

“You don’t have daily interaction with lawyers. You don’t hold court.”

Her new position will be mostly reading transcripts and making decisions in cooperation with two other judges. The judges serve three at a time, quarterly.

“Here, I make decisions by myself. There, you have to have a consensus. That’s going to be really different. In a way, it will be refreshing to get the other judges’ opinions,” she said.

People who aren’t happy with a circuit-court case outcome appeal to the state Court of Appeals.

“I like to read, research and write,” she said. “Not that I’m not good at what I do, but I really think I’m better suited to that. I am sort of the book nerd, and I do like to dig in and read.”

Wood has an idea for a novel, too.

“I still have that secret desire to write a book. I have the plot - it’s a medical/legal thriller,” she said. “It’s in my head. Someday it’ll come out on paper when I have time.”

Although the “book nerd” rarely watches TV, Wood said the best Mother’s Day present she ever received was a boxed DVD set of the television series Dallas.

“In junior high,” said the judge who grew up without television, “everybody would talk about what happened on Dallas.I never knew who shot J.R.”

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or close

getting to know

Rhonda WoodMy family includes: Husband, Michael; daughters, Ashley Packard, 24, of Hot Springs and her husband, Chance, and granddaughter, Blakeley; Brittney Wood, 22, of Conway; Kyle Kennedy, 22, of Fayetteville; and Sean Wood, 21, of Conway What does your granddaughter call you? Mimi. Being a grandmother is the best thing on Earth.

My favorite book is: I read everything. I just finished the new David Baldacci book, The Innocent. It’s really good. I probably read a book every two days. (She also recommend Citizen Washington and Delivering Happiness.) What is something people would be surprised to know about you? Usually the big thing is when they hear I didn’t have a TV growing up.

River Valley Ozark, Pages 148 on 06/24/2012

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