Longtime circuit judge prepares for retirement

Judge, who lost both legs at age 19, served judicial district for 37 years

By Kaitlyn Schwers
The Baxter Bulletin

MOUNTAIN HOME, Ark. (AP) - Children show terror in several different ways when they're in court: They cross their arms, they look down - sometimes intimidated. That's why Circuit Judge Gary Isbell, a 66-year-old double leg amputee, says he shaves his mustache and doesn't wear a robe. As he presides over the 14th Judicial District, Juvenile Division, he often asks children to come close to the stand.

And what he says next may impact the child for the rest of their life.

Juvenile justice won't be the same when Isbell steps down from the bench later this month after serving the 14th Judicial District for 37 years, The Baxter Bulletin reported.

Isbell will retire at the end of his current term, and reflects upon decades of experience as a judge. His focus, as always, is about successes within the juvenile justice system, rather than dwelling on failures.

"There are kids that come into court with such incredible promise - absolutely incredible promise," Isbell said. "But then they make choices, and you see them years later and you know that they're not anywhere near where they should have been or could have been, so you take pleasure in the kids that stop you at Walmart 30 years after the fact, who say, 'You know, you said something to me one time that changed my entire life.'

"It's not something that you think about when you start this job, but it's kind of an interesting reward when you get along as far as I've been."

Isbell took the bench as a circuit judge in 1991, presiding over 100 percent of the juvenile cases in Baxter, Marion, Boone and Newton counties. Juvenile law, he says, was still new to Arkansas. He ran unopposed and wanted to take the job with the idea "that there were solutions."

"Two years before I took the bench, they did pretty much a rewrite of the juvenile code, and two years before I took the bench, they created a legitimate judgeship. Before that, it was a referee system where the county judge of each county was essentially responsible for the 'orphans,' " he said. "At that point in time, Arkansas finally realized that was an archaic system in which you had non-judicial personnel dealing with serious issues, so they created the juvenile code and the juvenile court system."

Isbell also presides over most probate cases, and some cases related to criminal and domestic relations.

Law wasn't always the plan for Isbell. He once had a dream of playing professional baseball as a teenager. During his undergraduate years, he played college ball at Harding University in Searcy. His sports career came to a halt following an accident at age 19.

Isbell was working at a dehydration plant with family in Iowa during the summer of 1969, when "a pilot error and other weird happenings" accidentally put him inside an alfalfa chopper. "Instead of chopping alfalfa, it chopped me," said Isbell, who recalled the memory of waking up at a hospital in Marshalltown, Iowa, where doctors had to amputate both of his legs.

"It's who I am. Everything I am centers back to that at some point in time or another," Isbell said. "The day after, I woke up in the hospital, and obviously the blankets didn't go very far, and my dad says, 'Until now, you existed because of your abilities to play ball and to do physical things. For now on, you'll have to rely upon your brain.' "

For a brief time, Isbell utilized artificial legs, but for most of his life, he has used a wheelchair to get from place to place. He says the disability makes him better at his job.

"I'm a better judge because I'm more patient. I'm a better judge because I'm more willing to listen to other people," he explained.

Using a wheelchair also reveals just how accessible, or non-accessible, places can be. He anticipates the problem, and that's where the benefit comes in.

"Just look at your own community," Isbell said. "The courthouse never had ramps before I got here."

With each juvenile case, Isbell has four obligations: To get a child to the age of 18, alive, sober and educatable.

"The number to takeaway is that the kids are going to be OK, regardless of what you do," he said.

Most, but not with every case, he clarifies. Statistically, and sadly, 10 percent of children who come before the court will "fill up the prisons of the future." Isbell is most proud that he tried.

"These kids ... it's just absolutely amazing, and it doesn't make any difference who the kids are, but most of these kids in this part of the country have this incredible aura of what can happen, what can this person be," Isbell said. "The world is just at their beck and call, almost. They're young and exuberant and excited.

"That became kind of a life's work for me ... to help these kids find out that there are doors that can be opened, that there are windows that can be opened, that there are avenues they can take that can lead them to places they wouldn't otherwise dream of."

Isbell's last day is set for Dec. 31, but he won't be leaving law behind for good.

"I have made some commitments. The Chief Justice of the (Arkansas) Supreme Court has appointed me to a community that will have obligations that go beyond my tenure," Isbell said. "I have agreed with the Administrative Office of the Courts to continue to be a teacher available to them. I have talked to the Chief about doing special assignments as needed after a period of relaxation time."

During his relaxation time, Isbell is considering taking up a pottery class and a Master Gardening course.

"I have had an enormous good time; I feel like I have had a successful career," Isbell said. "I think we have laid the foundation for some really good things to happen in the future, and I think they really selected a good judge to succeed me."

Deanna "Suzie" Evans, of Yellville - a practicing attorney for more than 23 years in service to the residents of Baxter, Boone, Marion and Newton counties - will assume the duties of Circuit Judge, Division 2, 14th Judicial District beginning Jan. 1.

Published: Tue, Dec 23, 2014