Just before I was scheduled to interview Judge Paul Danielson, I was told by a local businessman that he and his wife, Betsy, are “really nice people.” I have known her from my youth, since she sang in my father’s choir at BHS, but my contact with him had been limited to a few chance encounters. (They are both due the courtesy title of “His/Her Honor” for having served in multiple judicial roles, but for brevity’s sake, I use their first names here.)
A few years back, while he was still an Associate Justice on the Arkansas Supreme Court, I happened to be ahead of Paul in the line to vote at the court house, and we exchanged pleasantries. I verified from that experience that, yes, Justices of the highest court do indeed get to vote; but they have to stand in line just like everyone else – and he did not appear to mind.
Paul and Betsy met while at the Arkansas School of Law at Little Rock. Their marriage cemented the connection of an extended family that has been very prominent in state legal circles. Their son, Erik, is the head of the law firm of which they are now a part, along with Paul’s brother, David. Betsy’s grandfather was a lawyer, and her father, Paul X Williams, Sr., served for several years on the Federal District Court. Her brothers, John and Paul X, Jr., are also attorneys. So, if you get a little confused about all the natural and professional relationships involved, it is understandable.
I wondered just exactly what a Supreme Court Justice does. Paul ran me through the weekly process. The justices hear oral arguments and do research on the cases and prepare briefs Friday through Tuesday (aided by their staffs). On Tuesday opinions are handed in. Thursday is conference day.
In the early part of his ten years on the bench, the Supreme Court heard 14 cases a week, which amounted to four cases per Justice, including back-up opinions. That case load has been relieved somewhat in recent years through the appellate court system. Suffice it to say that the Justices do not suffer from idleness by the time they have handled all the issues that are brought before them.
I asked Paul which was harder: to make your case as a lawyer or to decide a case as a judge. After a moment of consideration, he replied that the lawyer probably has the more difficult task, since that job requires construction of the arguments “from scratch,” whereas the judge “only” has to take the arguments presented and weigh their validity.
I suppose that one question most people would like to ask a Supreme Court Justice is which kind of case is most difficult to decide. So, I asked it. (You are welcome - no extra charge.) Paul answered without hesitation that it would be death penalty cases, since the consequences are so drastic.
Then, to get the other side of the issue, I asked him which cases had been most personally satisfying to him. Again, he replied very quickly that it would be adoption cases. In those, generally everyone ends up smiling.
Paul said that he considered the court on which he served and the one before it to have been two of the outstanding Supreme Courts that Arkansas has had. He cited an independent survey made during his tenure of the various state supreme courts, which rated Arkansas as second in the nation for the quality of their decisions.
And for the record, I agree with my friend that His Honor and Her Honor are indeed very nice people.