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Former Arkansas Supreme Court justice has died

By Sarah May on
 April 4, 2023

Sad news emerged this weekend when it was revealed that former Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Robert Hamilton “Bob” Dudley passed away at the age of 89, as the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reports.

Word of Dudley's death elicited numerous remembrances and glowing tributes from friends and former colleagues alike.

Family of public figures

Born in Jonesboro, Arkansas in 1933, Dudley's father – Denver Layton Dudley – was a lawyer, and his mother was a special education teacher and school administrator.

Denver Dudley won a term in the Arkansas legislature in 1924, and he also served as a prosecutor during the Great Depression, as the Democrat-Gazette explains, gaining national notoriety – and arguably infamy – for presiding over the so-called “Scottsboro” case in which two Black men were convicted in a white woman's rape and subsequently executed.

Given his father's occupation and high profile in the state, Dudley was said to be called “Little Judge” as he grew up.

It was perhaps his father's career that prompted Dudley to pursue a law degree at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville after having also studied at George Washington University.

Legal career begins

Following his graduation, Dudley began his life as a practicing lawyer in a Pocahontas firm alongside former Judge John Bledsoe.

By 1964, Dudley had set his sights on elected office, running for prosecuting attorney in the 16th Judicial District, and winning by a wide margin.

After serving three terms in that role, Dudley was elected 8th Chancery District judge, a jurisdiction that included nine Arkansas counties.

It was in 1980 that Dudley mounted a campaign for an open seat on the state Supreme Court, which he won, and he then subsequently secured a second term in 1988, serving until his retirement in 1996.

Tributes pour in

Upon Dudley's death, those who knew him both personally and professionally weighed in on the justice's remarkable life.

Rex Nelson of the Democrat-Gazette, who became acquainted with Dudley in his latter years, declared, “He was not only one of the state's foremost jurists but also a historian, a storyteller, and a great public servant.”

Also remembering Dudley was former Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe, who said, “He was a passionate jurist. What he believed, he believed really strongly to the point of being vocal about it.”

Dan Kemp, also a justice on the state's high court, lauded the significant impact of Dudley's career, telling the Democrat-Gazette, “He was instrumental from his influence from the time he served on the trial bench and his long tenure on the appellate bench as well.”

Life well-lived

According to an obituary published in the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Dudley shared three daughters and one son with his first wife, Sally Wentzell Dudley,

In addition, Dudley leaves behind seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, all of whom lovingly referred to him as “Pop.”

Later in life, Dudley married Mary Lynn Anthony, with whom he “gardened, played golf, and traveled extensively,” and their marriage lasted 17 years until her death. Toward the end of his years, the retired justice found loving companionship once more with Stuart Cobb, who, according to the aforementioned obituary, delighted him in the way “she lives her life as if every moment is the last.”

As the Dudley family explained of their patriarch, “His was the life of a lucky man well lived and well loved” – an ideal epitaph if ever there was one.