Western District of Arkansas

The Western District of Arkansas is one of two federal judicial districts in the state of Arkansas. It covers the western half of the state and is part of the Eighth Circuit. The district has a long and storied history, having been established in 1819 when Arkansas was still a territory. For much of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Western District of Arkansas was known nationwide for dispensing justice in the Indian Territory of Oklahoma. The district saw several high-profile cases during that time, like the trial of Belle Starr, the infamous female outlaw. Today, the Western District of Arkansas spans 33 counties across the state. It is divided into seven divisions, each with its own courthouse location. The district continues to serve an important role in the federal judiciary in Arkansas.

History

The Western District of Arkansas was originally established on March 2, 1819 by the Fifth Congress. At that time, Arkansas was still a territory that had not yet achieved statehood. The district was given jurisdiction over the western portions of the Arkansas Territory, which also included much of present-day Oklahoma. After Arkansas became a state in 1836, the district boundaries were redrawn to only include counties within the state of Arkansas.

For several decades in the late 1800s, the Western District of Arkansas held court proceedings in Fort Smith. During that time, Fort Smith became known nationwide as the epicenter for dispensing justice in the Indian Territory of Oklahoma. Several famous outlaws and criminals were tried in Fort Smith during that period, including Belle Starr, the infamous female bandit of the Old West. The district saw some of the largest mass executions in U.S. history when over 70 outlaws were hanged in Fort Smith from 1872 to 1896. This earned the city the nickname “Hell on the Border.”

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Judge Isaac Parker, who presided over the district court from 1875 to 1896, oversaw many of the high-profile criminal trials in Fort Smith during this rugged era. The Western District of Arkansas and Judge Parker became icons of frontier justice. Their exploits inspired books, movies, and television shows for decades to come. While the district’s jurisdiction over the Indian Territory ended in 1896, it continued to shape the course of justice in western Arkansas.

Jurisdiction

Today, the Western District of Arkansas spans 33 counties in the western half of the state. The district covers over 15,000 square miles and approximately 1.5 million residents. It is divided into seven divisions, each centered around a major city where court proceedings take place:

  • El Dorado Division: Ashley, Bradley, Calhoun, Columbia, Ouachita, Union
  • Fort Smith Division: Crawford, Franklin, Johnson, Logan, Polk, Scott, Sebastian
  • Harrison Division: Baxter, Boone, Carroll, Marion, Newton, Searcy
  • Texarkana Division: Hempstead, Howard, Lafayette, Little River, Miller, Nevada, Sevier
  • Fayetteville Division: Benton, Madison, Washington
  • Hot Springs Division: Clark, Garland, Hot Spring, Montgomery

Federal courthouses are located in each of these divisional cities. The District spans a diverse area of the state, from the foothills of the Ozarks to the pine forests of the south. The Western District of Arkansas maintains jurisdiction over any cases brought under federal law within its boundaries. This includes bankruptcy, copyright, patent, maritime, and aviation cases, as well as federal crimes.

Court Operations

The Western District of Arkansas has five district court judges who preside over cases. They are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. The current judges are:

  • Chief Judge Susan O. Hickey (El Dorado)
  • Judge P.K. Holmes III (Fort Smith)
  • Judge Timothy L. Brooks (Fayetteville)
  • Judge Mark E. Ford (Fort Smith)
  • Judge Barry A. Bryant (El Dorado)
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In addition, there are five magistrate judges that handle preliminary criminal proceedings and civil cases. The district court clerk oversees court operations, including filings and records. The U.S. Marshal is responsible for court security. The current U.S. Marshal position is vacant.

Notable Cases

The Western District of Arkansas has seen several high-profile cases come through its courts through the years:

  • Belle Starr Trial (1878) – The famous female bandit known as Belle Starr was tried for horse theft in Fort Smith. She was convicted and served nine months in prison before returning to outlaw life.
  • Coal Miner’s Strike (1914) – A major coal miner’s strike broke out in Sebastian County in 1914, leading to violence. Federal troops were dispatched and martial law was declared. Several strikers were tried in federal court for assault and murder.
  • Clinton Drug Trafficking (1983) – Major drug traffickers were tried in the Western District of Arkansas in the 1980s during Bill Clinton’s governorship. Allegations were made, but never proven, of CIA ties to Mena drug smuggling operations.
  • Whitewater Scandal (1996) – As part of the Whitewater investigation, President Bill Clinton had to provide testimony via video to a Little Rock grand jury empaneled by the Western District of Arkansas court.
  • West Memphis Three (2011) – Three men convicted of murder had their convictions overturned after spending 18 years in prison. They entered rare Alford pleas in Jonesboro federal court but maintained their innocence.

The district has shaped Arkansas law and politics through its rulings in these and other cases. It continues to see major federal cases related to government corruption, drug trafficking, white-collar crime, and civil rights.

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Courthouses

The Western District of Arkansas holds court in several historic courthouses across its seven divisions:

Judge Isaac Parker Federal Building (Fort Smith)

  • Built in 1887, expanded in 1908
  • Romanesque Revival architectural style
  • Listed on the National Register of Historic Places
  • Housed the court of the infamous “Hanging Judge” Isaac Parker

United States Post Office and Courthouse (El Dorado)

  • Built in 1937
  • Striking Art Deco architectural details
  • Sits on the National Register of Historic Places

John Paul Hammerschmidt Federal Building (Fayetteville)

  • Built in 1966
  • Named for Congressman John Paul Hammerschmidt
  • Modernist style federal building

U.S. Courthouse and El Dorado Division (El Dorado)

  • Built in 2004
  • Houses 2 district courtrooms, judge’s chambers and offices

The stately architecture of these courthouses provides a dignified setting for the administration of justice in the district.

Conclusion

For over two centuries, the Western District of Arkansas has played an integral role in the federal judicial system. Its jurisdiction spans a large swath of the state, overseeing major criminal and civil cases. The district’s storied history includes famous frontier trials that brought nationwide attention. Today, the Western District of Arkansas continues to operate from seven divisional courthouses where its judges dispense daily justice. The courts and judges of this district will continue to profoundly shape the legal landscape of Arkansas.

FAQs

What is the Western District of Arkansas?

The Western District of Arkansas is one of two federal judicial districts covering the state of Arkansas. It includes the western half of the state.

When was it established?

The Western District of Arkansas was established in 1819 when Arkansas was still a territory.

What counties does it cover?

The district covers 33 counties in western Arkansas divided among seven divisions.

Where are the courthouses located?

There are federal courthouses located in Fort Smith, El Dorado, Fayetteville, Texarkana, Harrison, Hot Springs, and Jonesboro for each division.

What are some famous cases tried in the district?

Some notable cases tried in the district include frontier justice trials in Fort Smith, Whitewater, West Memphis Three, and political corruption cases.

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