Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Robin Wynne, 70, dies in second term

Associate Justice Robin F. Wynne

Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Robin Wynne, who fended off an election challenge for the nonpartisan position last year from a candidate endorsed by the state Republican Party, died Wednesday night at age 70, a state official confirmed Thursday. A cause of death was not disclosed.

Wynne, who was first elected to the Supreme Court in 2014, won a second eight-year term on the bench in November. He previously served four years on the Arkansas Court of Appeals.

"It is with great sadness that I must share with you the news of the passing of Justice Robin Wynne last night," Marty Sullivan, director of the Administrative Office of the Courts, said in an email Thursday morning.

"Please keep his family in your thoughts during this tragic time. He was a valued member of the Arkansas Judiciary and his loss will be keenly felt."

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Wynne's service to Arkansas was immeasurable.

"Justice Wynne could have been anything -- a pastor, a politician, a businessman -- and chose instead to devote his life to Arkansans and the law," Sanders said in a released statement Wednesday. "For that, we are all eternally grateful. Our deepest condolences are with his family and all those who knew him."

Under Amendment 29 to the Arkansas Constitution, the governor is responsible for appointing a replacement when a vacancy occurs on the court. The person appointed to replace Wynne would serve until an elected justice takes office to fill the remainder of Wynne's term.

Wynne was born in Warren, grew up in Fordyce and was a graduate of Fordyce Public Schools. He earned his bachelor's degree from Harvard University in 1975 and his law degree from the University of Arkansas School of Law. He also attended Southern Methodist University's Perkins School of Theology in Dallas.

In spite of his educational and political background, which could have launched him on a career trajectory far from southeast Arkansas, Wynne didn't aspire to leave the city he grew up in, his colleagues said.

"He was exactly where he wanted to be," said Margaret Dobson, a Sheridan attorney and president of the Arkansas Bar Association. "He always remembered where he came from, and that was always so important to him."

Wynne and his wife, Margo, raised their four sons in Fordyce. A 2014 editorial in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette stated that Wynne coached Little League in his hometown for more than 20 years.

Wynne first served as an elected official as a state representative from 1985 through 1988.

During his time in the Legislature, Wynne, a Democrat, fought against the use of southeast Arkansas as a possible location for a low-level radioactive waste disposal facility and was a proponent of improving the state's highway system. He resigned from the House to run against incumbent Jim Scott in the 1988 Democratic primary for the District 34 state Senate seat and lost in a tight race.

After his legislative career, Wynne was the Fordyce city attorney from 1989 through 2004 and a deputy prosecuting attorney for the 13th Judicial District of Arkansas from 1989 through 1998.

He was a Dallas County District Court judge from 2004 to 2010 and afterward served four years on the state's Court of Appeals. He ran unopposed in 2010 for the Court of Appeals and won a contested race in 2012.

During his campaign for the Supreme Court seat in 2014, he was criticized for not denouncing negative ads aimed at his opponent, which were funded by an out-of-state political action committee. In 2022, he won in a runoff election against Faulkner County District Court Judge Chris Carnahan, who had the full backing of the Republican Party of Arkansas and had raised more than 50% in contributions to his campaign compared with Wynne.

Justice Rhonda Wood wrote on Twitter that she was "heartbroken" over the news of Wynne's death.

"He was kind, loving, and valued God, family, and justice," she stated. "I wish everyone could know the private side of Robin. He was a delight. Prayers go out to his family."

Justice Shawn Womack also said on Twitter that he was mourning the loss of his colleague and friend.

"Justice Wynne was genuinely one of the nicest people I have ever met," he said.

In an article in the Democrat-Gazette in 2022, Wynne said he wrote more than 250 opinions while on the Supreme Court and another 220 or so while on the Court of Appeals.

Attorney General Tim Griffin posted a statement Thursday on Twitter stating that Wynne's "legacy of public service will be long remembered."

A man of deep faith, Wynne made time for his church on top of everything else, said his friend Paul Keith, who also is an attorney. Wynne was a lay speaker in the United Methodist Church who occasionally would give sermons at various small churches close to home.

"If you can do that, along with being a full-time justice and a father and husband, you definitely have your plate full," said Keith, who added that he and Wynne would sometimes consult with each other on sermon topics. "He never backed away from that. He was a man who loved to serve."

Wynne was the son of an attorney. His father, Thomas Duncan Wynne Jr., was also the mayor of Fordyce for 12 years. The elder Wynne also served as a deputy prosecuting attorney and later a municipal judge.

"There's a thread of integrity that runs through the Wynne family," Keith said. "Robin really exemplified it. He served the public and did so in a conscientious manner.

"When you have discussions with other lawyers that you're involved with, you have to be able to trust what they tell you," he continued. "You could always trust what Robin Wynne told you. He was a wonderful public servant in all the years that I had the pleasure of knowing him."

Dobson said he was kind and humble and treated all members of the bar with respect.

"One day, out of the blue, he just dropped by my office to say hello to me," she said. "My dad [Conley F. Byrd Sr.] served on the Arkansas Supreme Court when I was a kid, and he would tell me that it was important to get out of the building once in a while and go visit people. That's exactly the way Justice Wynne approached his job. He did everything the right way.

"He was just a personable, kind Southern gentleman," she said. "That showed through in everything that he did."