Arkansas Court of Appeals: Chief Judge Rita Gruber
April 17-23, 2017
By Jay Edwards
Chief Judge Rita Gruber of the Arkansas Court of Appeals says she was fairly certain when she was an undergraduate student at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock that she wanted to make the law her career.
“I had been the beneficiary of the public school system,” she says. “Back then, there were two tracks, you would graduate high school and go to work or you would continue on to college. Ours was a blue collar family and it was not expected by my parents that I would attend college.”
However, a meeting with the principal when she was in the 9th grade Sylvan Hills High School changed that expectation.
“One day, the principal called me into the office,” she remembers. “It was the only time I was ever called to the office the entire time I was in public schools. I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, what have I done?’”
All she could think about was how much trouble she would be in when she got home. But then the principal looked up, smiled and said, “‘I have been looking at your test scores and I have taken the liberty of enrolling you in the college bound courses.”
“I must have had that ‘deer in the headlights look,’” she says. “I knew my parents would not like that because they expected me to make straight A’s, but when I said that to the principal, he told me I was fully capable of making those grades in the higher-level courses.”
So it was off to Fayetteville, and the University of Arkansas.
After transferring later to UALR, Gruber was taking a course in constitutional law one semester when it dawned on her how interested in it she was.
“I remember thinking that I really liked the course. I enjoyed the analytical part of looking at facts and evidence. I thought it was interesting, and it probably helped that Wayne was interested in it too.
That would be Wayne Gruber, her spouse and the other judge in the family.
The pair had met while at UALR. “I was a junior and he was stationed at Little Rock Air Force Base,” she says. “I was a full time student with a part-time job. Our plan after we decided to get married was to go to law school. At that time Little Rock had a part-time law school, with night classes only. So our plan was to move to Fayetteville, where Wayne would finish his undergrad work, and then we would hopefully get into law school up there.”
“Then God threw us a curve and Wayne got the opportunity to get his masters in social work from UALR, so we moved back to Little Rock.”
By then, the law school in Little Rock had become accredited and began offering full-time curriculum.
“We decided to stay in LR, after Wayne got a job as the first social worker hired by Big Brothers of Arkansas.
Then, both were both informed by the registrar, a young man named Steve Clark, that they had been accepted to law school.
Daughter Regan came along while the couple was in law school, and after graduation in 1979, Wayne was hired by Judge Tom Digby and Rita went to work at Thurman and Capps Law Firm.
Four-years later the couple welcomed their second child, Will, and after Rita’s pregnancy leave, rather than returning to her old firm, she went into practice with Wayne.
One of their good friends from North Little Rock, Coach Carol Henry, who was on the Pulaski County Quorum Court, knew that Wayne had been toying with the idea of public service and told him that the court was hiring attorneys and that Wayne should apply. He did and was chosen. Not long after he needed some help and turned to Rita.
Then, in 1989, one of the court’s judges decided to resign and another member called the Gruber’s and said one of them needed to run for the position. After hearing from her friend and law professor, John Pagan, that it should be her, Rita talked with Wayne and he agreed that she should be the one.
The court approved it and Rita Gruber was appointed as the first female member of the Puaski County Quorum Court.
“My friends thought I had lost my mind,” she said, “and I wasn’t sure I hadn’t. But I had been thinking for a while that I wanted to do something different. And it was only for 20 months.”
At that time Pulaski County was limited to 200 jail beds, a number that would increase only with a new jail. Rita, along with Prosecuting Attorney Chris Piazza, began a campaign for a one-cent sales tax to be used for a new 800-bed jail. When it passed, everyone was surprised.
“This was when the country was against any new taxes,” she said. “When it passed I got calls from other states asking how in the world we did it.”
Another event during her term was when their friend Annabelle Imber Tuck won a chancery judge seat. “Wayne was thinking about running for city attorney of North Little Rock,” she says, “and we knew Annabelle had a very good campaign manager in Sheila Bronfman. We met with Sheila and after a few hours of listening to us she surprised us both by saying the wrong Gruber was running for office.”
“We were surprised but she convinced us; we also knew there were a lot of judgeships coming up for election and we decided I should run for the Circuit Chancery Juvenile Position, 11th Division.”
Sheila was confident but told Rita that she had to drop her push for the jail tax. “She said that it would poison my campaign.”
But after talking with Wayne and a lot of soul searching, Rita told herself that she had signed on to be county judge and that the jail tax was probably the most important thing she would do in her 20 months.
“I told Sheila I couldn’t do what she was asking,” she says.
It worked out for the best however, with her winning without a runoff.
“I know people were strongly against more taxes, but I think they felt even stronger about the need for a new jail,” she says. “I’m proud we could get that passed.”
She would serve on the juvenile court for 18 years. She began her term on the Court of Appeals in January of 2009 and was appointed chief judge of the court last November.
“I always wanted to be in a career where I could help people,” Gruber says. “As judges, I think we are able to do that. If you know the law, are fair, patient and show mercy, then I think you have what it takes to be a pretty good judge.”
Rita and Wayne have two children, Regan and Will. Both are lawyers. They have two grandchildren and are excitedly awaiting their third.