The Arkansas Judiciary Justice Building in Little Rock. (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)
In a 4-3 decision, the Arkansas Supreme Court on Thursday reinstated the law license of William Asa Hutchinson III, who is facing drug and driving while intoxicated charges in Benton County.
Hutchinson, the 47-year-old son of former Gov. Asa Hutchinson, was arrested Jan. 13 by a sheriff’s deputy after allegedly driving 71 mph in a 45 mph zone in Bentonville. The deputy found a small quantity of cocaine on Hutchinson and a gun in his car, according to court records. Prosecutors did not file any gun charges in the case.
In reinstating Hutchinson’s law license, the justices in the majority said the Supreme Court’s Committee on Professional Conduct acted too hastily. The committee suspended his license to practice law on Jan. 20, seven days after his arrest.
“While the Committee has the power to summarily suspend law licenses, it should exercise such power cautiously,” the justices wrote. “Suspension should occur primarily only after a notice and a hearing.”
“In today’s world of instant communication and Zoom hearings, minimal notice and an opportunity to be heard imposes no real burdens,” the majority wrote in its two-page decision.
The justices also expressed “grave concerns about uniformity of treatment,” citing the case of another lawyer, charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud in 2019, whose license wasn’t suspended until December 2022, months after his guilty plea.
Hutchinson’s criminal case has not been adjudicated; he entered his innocent plea in April.
In a strongly worded, nearly six-page dissent, Justice Courtney Hudson wrote that in prior decisions the high court has rejected the argument that its rules violate attorneys’ due-process rights. Going forward, Hudson said the court should amend its rules to provide some type of notice before a law license is suspended.
In that, she and the majority are in agreement. The ruling directs the professional conduct committee “to revisit our rules and submit proposed revisions … that provide more due process protections.”
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However, the professional conduct committee’s actions were entirely proper in Hutchinson’s case, Hudson wrote.
The dissenting opinion focuses on the fact there is ample evidence that Hutchinson has a history of flouting the law and posing a danger to the public. It cites a video of the 45-minute traffic stop that ended with Hutchinson’s arrest and Hutchinson’s extensive history of arrests and convictions related to alcohol and other drugs.
“Notably, this is not Hutchinson’s first encounter of its kind. In fact, it’s not even the second, third, or fourth incident of similar misconduct. This is his fifth such soiree with law enforcement over seven years’ time. Hutchinson’s pattern of misconduct illustrates his flagrant disregard for the law and for his status as an officer of the court. Enough is enough. The practice of law is not a right but a privilege,” Hudson wrote.
The dissent quotes the professional conduct committee’s finding that “[a]n attorney who has repeatedly violated the law, who consistently is charged with criminal offenses, including felony offenses involving illegal drugs and a firearm, and who by virtue of this conduct exhibits a dependence on or disregard for the risks of using drugs and/or alcohol, lacks fitness to practice law. There are obvious risks associated with an attorney who is addicted to alcohol or controlled substances, including risks regarding the entrustment of money, meeting critical deadlines, acting in the best interest of clients and generally exercising good judgment.”
Accordingly, Hudson wrote that she would have deny Hutchinson’s petition to have his law license reinstated. Justices Karen Baker and Robin Wynn concurred in the dissent.
The majority opinion takes note of Hutchinson’s history of arrests and convictions, saying: “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. We focus instead on the lack of uniform treatment and due process.”
Chief Justice John Dan Kemp and Justices Barbara Webb, Shawn Womack and Rhonda Wood were in the majority.
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