Annabelle Imber Tuck has had a history-making career and is one of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock William H. Bowen School of Law’s most high-profile graduates.
She went to law school in the 1970s, not too many years after law schools began to expand the number of women being admitted in each class and eventually was the first female justice elected to the Arkansas Supreme Court. Along the way, she handed down an order that reshaped the way Arkansas’s public schools are funded.
She attributes some of her success to the legal education and training she received from UA Little Rock’s William H. Bowen School of Law, where she graduated in 1977 and where she continues to serve as a Public Service Fellow and Jurist-in-Residence.
Like many of the current students in Bowen’s part-time program, Tuck pursued a legal education after getting a few years of work experience and life experience.
She graduated in 1971 from Smith College magna cum laude with a degree in political science. She was accepted to the University of Arkansas’s law school but decided she needed to take a break from academic studies and work a while.
“When I finished college, my dad had just died in 1971. I really didn’t know anything about the law in terms of a career. My mom was a teacher, and my dad was an extension agent. There were no lawyers in our extended family.”
Instead, she enrolled in a paralegal school in Philadelphia because at that time, paralegal work was an entree into law firms.
“They had a great deal. They would find you a job in the city of your choice, and if they couldn’t, they would refund your tuition,” she said. “I picked Little Rock, but they had trouble placing me because there were no paralegals in Arkansas. There were secretaries with secretarial pay. They found me a job in Houston, Texas, and I said, ‘Close enough.’”
In Houston, she worked at a patent, trademark and copyright law firm. Because she spoke two or three languages (due to living abroad as a child while her father worked overseas for the U.S. Agency for International Development), she helped with translations of foreign patent and trademark applications.
“I really liked the job, but what I really wanted was to be a litigator,” she said.
She enrolled in the evening law program at Bates College of Law at the University of Houston, working during the day and going to school at night. After two years, her husband, Lee Clinton, wanted to move back to Little Rock. When they returned in 1975, Tuck quickly found a job as a litigation paralegal at Wright, Lindsey and Jennings law firm.
She also looked to the University of Arkansas to complete her law degree. At that time, UA had a night division in Little Rock, which would soon become part of UA Little Rock. Tuck met with the dean who admitted her on the spot.
“Of course, that would never happen today,” she joked.
At the time, the law classes were taught in a downtown Little Rock building that lacked women’s restrooms on the law school level. To this day, Tuck remembers her professors and which classes they taught.
“I just kept my eye on the ball and went to school and work and then studied on the weekends,” she said. “I had family obligations, but we managed.”
After paying her way through school, she graduated in 1977.
She wanted very much to work at Wright, Lindsey and Jennings, which at that time had one female lawyer and had never hired a graduate from the UA night division.
“I knew the Saturday when they would be discussing the next group of new associates, and I was waiting,” Tuck recalled. Then she got a call from Edward L. Wright, asking her if she’d like to meet at the Capital Club for a drink.
“I knew at that point I was going to be an associate,” she said. “I never asked what my salary would be. I was just so glad I was going to be with a law firm that I trusted.”
Tuck had worked in general practice as a paralegal, but as an attorney, she wanted to be a great litigator.
“I wanted to be in the courtroom, and I wanted to be in front of juries,” she said. “Up until that point, women were not in jury trials. I didn’t want to be pigeon-holed. I wanted to be in the hot areas. I wanted to be in business litigation because that got me into complicated things, and I would get my trial experience in tort litigation. l lived and breathed law, and then I would go home and watch Perry Mason so I could see something solved in one hour.”
Six years later, in 1983, she made partner at the law firm, though at one point she tried to talk herself out of a promotion.
“I had just had a baby, and my marriage was breaking up, and I went to my senior partner and told him he might want to take me off the partner list,” she said. “He was understanding and told me that their considerations for partnership status were much broader than one particular year’s performance.”
In 1984, then Gov. Bill Clinton appointed Tuck to a vacant criminal division judgeship on the Pulaski County Circuit Court. She took a one-year leave of absence from the law firm to serve.
“Once I got into that position, I started delving into the ability to really listen,” she said. “What I determined from my experience was that I was a good decision-maker. I loved advocacy, but I thought I could do more as a decision maker.”
When the term expired, Tuck returned to Wright Jennings for three more years. In 1988, she was elected chancery and probate judge for Pulaski and Perry counties, where she served for eight years (1989-1996).
In 1994, while serving on the chancery bench, Tuck issued an order that would eventually reshape the way public schools in Arkansas are funded. The Lake View School District had sued the state on the grounds that the vastly unequal funding of schools in Arkansas violated the constitutional promise that the state would provide a suitable education for each child and that the educational opportunities would be equal regardless of where a child lived. Tuck agreed and gave the Arkansas General Assembly two years to meet its constitutional obligation. The case – Lake View School District No. 25 v. Huckabee – resulted in sweeping reforms, including school consolidation and changes in tax structures.
In 1996, Tuck was elected to serve as an associate justice on the Arkansas Supreme Court, becoming the first woman ever elected to the Supreme Court. She was reelected twice and served a total of 13 years before retiring at the end of 2009. William H. Bowen, a former dean of the Bowen School of Law for whom the school is named, was initially appointed to serve until the next general election; however, his tenure on the court only lasted a short time, so Ronald Sheffield was subsequently appointed and served until Jan. 1, 2011.
“I learned when I was on the Supreme Court with six other people that you do better when you have more than one person making the decision. The sum of the parts is greater than the individual parts. I feel that way about juries. I never disagreed with a jury’s verdict while I served on the circuit bench.”
When Tuck retired, she didn’t want to teach full-time, though she has taught classes on contracts, ethics and professional responsibility from time to time at the Bowen School of Law. She also judges moot court, works with students going to competitions, and serves as a judge for the first-year law students’ oral arguments.
“I love working with law students because they have energy to burn and I feed off of that,” she said.
She is also a passionate advocate for access to justice, which is one of the law school’s core values.
“I have always been concerned about due process,” she said. “We have to make sure our courts are accessible to anyone and everyone, not just to people with money.”
She works with the Arkansas Access to Justice Commission, which was created by the state Supreme Court in 2003 and tasked with finding ways “to provide equal access to justice in civil cases for all Arkansans.”
Though Tuck has an office at the law school, she spends most of her time working out and about in the community.
“I will go wherever people want to meet me,” she said.
Article by Tracy Courage | Photo by Benjamin Krain