Longtime district judge who eschewed gavel retires

Hopes legacy is one of treating those who came before him with dignity and equality

By Josh Dooley
The Baxter Bulletin

MOUNTAIN HOME, Ark. (AP) — Baxter County District Court Judge Van Gearhart walked into his courtroom Thursday morning, sartorially elegant, yet humble. It’s something he’s done for 22 years, but Thursday marked his last time to preside over court as he is retiring after more than two decades of service.

You won’t find anyone who’s seen Gearhart wear the judicial robe during court proceedings. Nor will you find anyone who’s heard him use the gavel his wife bought for him when he first took the bench.

There are reasons he’s never donned the robe and there’s a reason he’s never banged his gavel. It’s simply not who Gearhart was as a judge, and it was a conscious decision he made before he sat at the bench the first time.

“When I first started here, my chief clerk was Linda Shaffer, who’s now deceased. She told me this story about a prosecutor she worked with in Colorado who told her about a syndrome he called the ‘Black Robe disease’,” Gearhart said. “It’s a disease some lawyers unfortunately get when they put that black robe on. They become pompous or arrogant, they make everyone stand when they come in the room. They forget humility.”

For Gearhart, the decision not to don the robe had another reason besides humility. Gearhart was concerned for the defendants who came into his courtroom, many of whom were scared, appearing for the first time as a criminal defendant, he told The Baxter Bulletin.

“I just decided I was not going to wear a robe. I didn’t want to intimidate people when they came in,” the judge said. “I made that decision and I stuck with it. I think the way to try and get people’s respect is to treat them fairly and treat them the same as other similarly situated people. That’s been my goal. Judges everywhere might be better served if they abided by that Tim McGraw song that says always be humble, always be kind.”

While Gearhart says he always tried to be humble and kind, he was tough when he needed to be and wasn’t afraid to hand out the maximum penalty available in a case that made national headlines.

In January of 2006, Tammy and William Hanson were found guilty of 20 counts of misdemeanor cruelty to animals following a trial in Gearhart’s courtroom. The case involved nearly 500 dogs — many of them evacuated from Louisiana following Hurricane Katrina — that were found in poor health at the Hanson’s Gamaliel dog rescue facility called Every Dog Needs a Home.

“In the last 22 years, that’s the case that stands out. We had a trial, they plead not guilty. There was a lot of information that came out,” said Gearhart. “They got the maximum, a year, that’s all they could get. I remember Dr. James Snodgrass said the conditions at the rescue were unspeakable and deplorable.”

The Hanson case pointed out something that frustrated Gearhart at the time.

“Under our law, and I never understood why we have this law, the most that a person can get is one year on a misdemeanor,” said Gearhart. “That’s ok, but the problem is you can’t stack those. So, if you have numerous counts, like they did, our law says they must run not consecutively, but concurrently. I’ve always thought that law should be changed.”

Gearhart says he hopes his legacy is one of fairness, one of treating those who came into his courtroom with dignity and equality, whether it was a defendant or an attorney. He hopes he leaves a legacy of applying the law with common sense.

“As a district court judge, you want to sort of put yourself in the place of the person who’s standing in front of you,” Gearhart said. “When you sentence somebody, you want know the sentence was fair and that you treated the person well, and you treated them fairly and not given him more of sentence because you don’t like the way he looks or don’t like what he said. It ought to be based on his conduct.”
 

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