Judge “Buzz” Arnold, polymath, legal historian and former federal district judge

I am a big fan of legal history.   I spend a fair amount of time lending my meagre talents to the preservation of the legal history of the judges and courts in the Eighth Circuit as Chairman of the Board of The Historical Society of the United States Courts in the Eighth Circuit.

I am especially fond of legal history written by judges especially those who started their careers as federal trial judges.  How they find the time to do their legal work and turn out distinguished legal histories is beyond me.  So, today, I want to briefly highlight a great judge and a world-class legal historian.

While I am not generally a fan of portraits, this is one of my favorites.  It perfectly captures this gentle man.

While I am not generally a fan of portraits, this is one of my favorites. It perfectly captures this gentle man.

To say that Judge Morris S. Arnold (Buzz), of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, is brilliant understates the truth.  The word “polymath” is a perfect description of the judge.  In addition to being a highly regarded legal scholar, the judge is a historian of the first rank.

Like his brother (the late (and much beloved) Richard Arnold who served with Buzz on the Court of Appeals), Arnold attended Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, graduating in 1959. Thereafter, he received a bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering in 1965 from the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. He then attended the University of Arkansas School of Law in Fayetteville, having received the LL.B in 1968. He received master of laws (LL.M), and doctor of juridical science (SJD) degrees from Harvard University Law School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1969 and 1971, respectively.

He was a professor at the Indiana University School of Law in Bloomington from 1971-1977. He was then the university vice president and professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School from 1977–1981, when he returned to Arkansas as a professor at the William H. Bowen School of Law at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock from 1981 to 1984.  In 1985, he returned to Indiana as Dean of the law school.

On October 23, 1985, President Ronald W. Reagan nominated Morris Arnold to a new seat as judge of the United States District Court for the Western District of Arkansas, based in Fort Smith, Arkansas.  The Senate confirmed his nomination on December 16, and he received his commission on December 17.  Arnold left the district court in 1992 to assume a judgeship on the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.*

Judge Arnold is the author of books, articles, book reviews, and speeches, mostly on the subjects of English legal history and colonial Arkansas. His research at archives in Spain and France allowed him to portray a colonial Arkansas previously unknown.  His book The Rumble of a Distant Drum: Quapaws and Old World Newcomers, 1673-1804 won the Booker Worthen Literary Prize and J. G. Ragsdale Book Award in Arkansas History. Arkansas: A Narrative History won the Arkansania Award.

In 2001 he was awarded the Porter Literary Prize for his body of work on colonial Arkansas. Most significantly, in 1994 the French government named him a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Palmes Académiques for his work on eighteenth-century Louisiana.

Buzz served as president of the American Society for Legal History and as vice president of the Selden Society (the only learned society and publisher devoted entirely to English legal history). As ASLH president, he helped establish the Law and History Review, which is recognized internationally as the leading journal in the field of legal history.  In 2012, at its annual meeting, the ASLH specially recognized Judge Arnold for his extraordinary contributions to the field of legal history.

Not bad for a really nice guy who started his federal judicial career trying cases in Ft. Smith.


*One of my few claims to fame is that my confirmation hearing to be a district judge in 1992 was held on the  same day that Buzz’s had his confirmation hearing regarding his nomination to the Court of Appeals.  That’s when I first had the opportunity to meet Buzz.  I have been in awe ever since.

15 responses

  1. Was there some military service in there? Otherwise, that’s 6 years to get out of college and 12 years spent in college and post-college.

    He’s also emblematic of the ivory tower egghead so often derided by conservatives.

  2. Ned,

    In addition to everything else, the judge also practiced law for about five years in Arkansas. Judge Arnold practiced law in Texarkana, Arkansas in 1968 and again in Little Rock, Arkansas from 1981 through 1984. During that time, he also served as special chief justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court and special master of the Chancery Court of Pulaski County, Arkansas.

    As far as your “ivory tower egghead” comment is concerned, no one that I know who knows Judge Arnold would say that about him. Anyway, Ned, I assume you like irony. The first and last name I am able to derive from your e-mail signature is the same as the absent minded professor who discovered “Flubber” in the 1961 black-and-white Walt Disney movie that also became the 1997 film Flubber. Too funny, Ned!

    All the best.


  3. Thanks for this nice little profile. Best job I ever had — ever will have — was clerking for Judge Arnold. Gentle and brilliant and pithy. I recall writing a long memo to him about an Indian law case and he called me into his chambers. “Andrew,” he said. “This memo is concise, well-researched, well thought-out, well written and, curiously, entirely wrong.”

  4. I’ve never had any one recognize the name before. We’re showing our age, I guess.

    I very much enjoy your blog, by the way.

  5. Andrew,

    Great story.

    I agree with you about clerking. The best job I ever had was clerking for Judge Ross on the Eighth Circuit some 40 years ago. I owe Judge Ross more than I can ever repay.

    All the best.


  6. Thanks for your affectionate (and apt) profile of this outstanding man.

    I had the pleasure of trying a long multi-defendant criminal case before Judge Arnold in the early 80’s. Every morning, as we were getting ready in the courtroom, he would come out and visit and exchange pleasantries with the lawyers and others, drinking tea from what I have always remembered as a Spode cup and saucer. He would do the same with those defendants who were in the Marshals’ custody.

    At the end of the trial day he would make a general inquiry of all as to whether there was anything else to come before the court, and would field the myriad comments, complaints, and questions of both defendants and counsel, including some genuinely difficult requests by the in-custody defendants, no matter how long they took to address.

    When difficult questions of law arose during the trial, he would invite observations from all, including those not directly affected by the issue, to try and make sure he got both the question and the answer right.

    He was at all times an exemplar of fairness and patience, good humor and dignity, intelligence and judgment – in short, he was precisely what a lawyer wishes every judge would be like. I have been trying cases in federal courts for forty years, but those months in Fort Smith stand out as one of the finest experiences of my career.

  7. I agree with Andrew. It was also the best job one could ask for in the law. Unlike him, however, my memos were always correct. : )

  8. Thank you ever so much for your comment. What a nice tribute to Buzz!

    I am not surprised by your account. It is entirely consistent with what I know of the man. It is wonderful, however, to have an experienced practitioner such as yourself confirm what others have said about Buzz.

    Again, thank you. All the best.


  9. I worked as Judge Arnold’s senior law clerk for 16 years, on both the district court and the appellate court. I would happily have worked for him for 16 more years if I hadn’t needed to retire for personal reasons. It was the most intellectually stimulating experience of my life, and there is not one single moment of it that I regret. In addition to all of his wonderful qualities mentioned in your post and by the other correspondents, I want to say that he is one of the most compassionate and loyal people I have ever known. And he could be excruciatingly funny!

  10. Re-reading my comment above, I realize that I left out one of Judge Arnold’s signal achievements — one that I doubt very much any other federal judge has mastered. And that is that he is the only federal judge who knows the words to every Bob Dylan song ever written!

  11. Thanks so much for the additional rich detail about Judge Arnold.

    Regarding Dylan,burned into my mind is the exact time and place I first heard a Bob Dylan record. I shall never forget it. In particular, I retain a distinct image even now of what the phonograph (what an amusing word) looked like. That Judge Arnold knows all the lyrics to Dylan’s records surprises me but not very much.

    All the best.


  12. Judge Arnold was my property professor at the UALR law school. He once entertained the class with his impression of Dean Martin singing “Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime.” A few years later, when Judge Arnold was on the district court bench and I clerked for another district judge, I was with him on a day when a case of his was reversed by the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals. Judge Arnold was not happy, calling the appellate judges nothing but a bunch of “glorified paper graders.” The first time I saw him after he went on the 8th Circuit, I congratulated him on becoming one of those “glorified paper graders.”

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