Arkansas Supreme Court reinstates law license of former Arkansas governor’s son

Hearing wrongly skipped, court rules

William Asa Hutchinson III

The Arkansas Supreme Court on Thursday reinstated the law license of William Asa Hutchinson III, son of Republican presidential candidate and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, in a split decision saying a high court panel should have provided notice and held a hearing before suspending his license.

Hutchinson, 47, was arrested in January and later charged by Benton County prosecutors with possession of a controlled substance, driving while intoxicated second offense and refusal to submit to a chemical test.

Within days of his arrest, a panel of the Arkansas Supreme Court Committee on Professional Conduct suspended his law license. Hutchinson has pleaded innocent to the charges.

In a 4-3 ruling, justices said the high court prefers the committee to provide an attorney with notice and a hearing before issuing an interim suspension. While justices recognized rules permitted the panel's action, they noted "this was a rapid summary suspension for conduct unrelated to petitioner's practice as a lawyer."

"In today's world of instant communication and Zoom hearings, minimal notice and an opportunity to be heard imposes no real burdens," the majority said. "And this court and its committees must lead by example by having rules that provide ample procedural due process protections."

Justices also raised concerns about uniformity of treatment, noting Everett Martindale, a Little Rock attorney, had his license suspended months after he pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit mail fraud in federal court last year.

"But to be clear: this court does not condone petitioner's alleged violation of the law; nor do we condone his past behavior that has subjected him to Committee discipline," read the high court opinion. "We focus instead on the lack of uniform treatment and due process."

Chief Justice John Dan Kemp and associate justices Barbara Webb, Shawn Womack and Rhonda Wood were in the majority.

In a dissenting opinion, Associate Justice Courtney Hudson pointed to Hutchinson's alleged offenses and prior encounters with law enforcement as a "pattern of misconduct" that "illustrates his flagrant disregard for the law and for his status as an officer of the court."

Hutchinson's latest charges stem from a Jan. 13 traffic stop.

According to court documents, a Benton County sheriff's office deputy spotted a vehicle traveling 71 mph in a 45 mph zone in Bentonville. Hutchinson was identified as the driver. The deputy described Hutchinson's eyes as bloodshot and watery and said he smelled alcohol on Hutchinson's breath.

The deputy did field sobriety tests and believed Hutchinson was under the influence of alcohol to such a degree his reactions, motor skills and judgment were substantially altered, according to a probable cause affidavit.

The deputy found a clear plastic bag in Hutchinson's jacket pocket containing a white, powdery substance, which tested positive for cocaine. Inside the car, the deputy found a gun, according to the affidavit.

While Hutchinson was arrested in connection with simultaneous possession of drugs and firearms, prosecutors didn't file the formal charge against him.

The decision to proceed with the interim suspension of a law license, said Hudson, depends on the evidence of misconduct and whether the state's Office of Professional Conduct has access to it. In Hutchinson's case, the office reviewed a 45-minute video of the traffic stop from the Benton County sheriff's office along with the deputy's written affidavit and description of the traffic stop.

"Rarely is an attorney's misconduct caught on video and made available for the OPC's review," wrote Hudson. "In this instance, it was. In fact, the whole world had access to the video within days of the arrest due to its online presence."

In Martindale's case, Hudson said federal prosecutors did not share evidence of misconduct until after the attorney pleaded guilty. She noted that Martindale voluntarily surrendered his license when he entered his plea.

"By granting Hutchinson extraordinary relief and reinstating his law license, the court has completely disregarded a unanimous decision by a committee of attorneys and laypeople that was based on substantial proof of a pattern of criminal behavior by Hutchinson," Hudson wrote.

Hudson noted that Hutchinson was convicted of driving while intoxicated in 2018 and pleaded guilty in 2016 to felony possession of a controlled substance in Alabama.

Hudson agreed with the majority in that the high court should amend its rules to provide some type of notice before the imposition of an interim suspension.

Associate justices Karen Baker and Robin Wynne joined Hudson in dissenting.

Information for this article was contributed by Tracy M. Neal of the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.