The law comes first, says county's top judge

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Alan David Epley of Eureka Springs is a soft-spoken, thoughtful man with a distinguished crop of silver hair, and a thick moustache to match.

He is not a big man, but he has a certain way about him that inspires confidence, like a judge.

The Hon. Judge Alan D. Epley, circuit, chancery and juvenile court judge for Carroll County, said Wednesday that his work philosophy, his love, his way of life boils down to one very important thing: "The law comes first."

In an interview recently he explained what it is like to be a judge, revealed a few secrets about his profession, and said he wants the public to know how and why he does some of the things he has to do, and what these most-serious of things do to him on a personal level.

At age 58, Judge Epley has decades of experience on the bench, having served more than 20 years as the Eureka Springs municipal judge, as well as Green Forest city judge.

He was elected to serve as Carroll County's first circuit/chancery judge beginning in 1999. On his first day, his judicial robes were ceremoniously draped on him by two men who had great influence on his life and career, his older brother Lewis Epley Jr., and the late Judge Ted Coxsey.

His working life is filled with what journalists like to call "courtroom drama," but it is sometimes mundane, and it can be heartbreaking.

Judge Epley said he sometimes has to talk to his wife Evelyn to relieve the pressure of making decisions that affect the lives of so many people.

The judge can show his human side, but usually only in private.

"The most painful and difficult cases are those involving termination of parental rights, followed closely by contested child custody cases. It requires me to hear parental abuse and neglect of children, and it is hard to maintain judicial detachment when I see photos and evidence of sexual and physical abuse of children. It ends up on my desk (in juvenile court) and I have to look at the evidence and make the decision, because there's no jury. It's my responsibility."

Epley called it the "pole star," or his point of navigation. It is the soul of his decision.

"The pole star is what is in the best interest of the children," he said.

That often conflicts with what despondent parents or relatives may perceive as justice, but Epley said he sticks to the law, as hard as it may be.

"Juvenile court is in many ways the most important (phase of the system)," he said.

"I've had some shining successes, but also some stunning losses when it comes to the rehabilitation of a juvenile."

When a case gets to him personally, he said, "I talk to my wife, to the extent that I can. If an appeal is a possibility, I can't even talk to her about it."

All judges in Arkansas are restricted by a Canon of Judicial Ethics, a 30-page chapter in a legal tome that outlines what a judge can and can not do. A violation can mean anything from a reprimand to removal from the bench.

Epley can't show emotion on the bench ---- not a smile or a frown in front of a jury, so all evidence is met with the same stern facade he must maintain.

He can't talk to anyone ---- and many people ask, he said ---- about a pending case. Judges are bound to maintain strict silence about a case at all times.

"When I'm perplexed or need help, I talk to Judge Jay Finch (of Benton County) or Judge Gary Isbell (of Boone County) when I'm seeking advice during a trial. And then, I have to disclose to the attorneys that I sought other judges' advice."

Epley and other judges are closely governed by a judicial ethics committee that serves under the Arkansas Supreme Court, and complaints about any of his actions go before that panel.

Epley's humor flashed briefly as he said, "Confidentially, I've been there twice and been exonerated both times ---- unfounded," he said proudly.

He said he has been told by some attorneys that his patience is a mile longer than some other judges, but God help the lawyer that pushes him too far.

"It might depend on what side of the bed I get up on," he said. "I try to extend all of the courtesies to all that I can within the law to accomplish the court's business. I've had attorneys mad at me. I made a ruling against one who just kept arguing and arguing at the top of his voice for the next two days, and I kept telling him 'lower your voice.' He continued arguing, exercising my patience, and he lowered his voice but I still couldn't shut him up."

The judge said he has held two attorneys in contempt of court in the past five years.

"They both chested up and shouted at each other, and I finally gaveled them down and fined them both $50. Neither one of them had the money on him," he said with a grin.

"If I see them getting mad, I order a short recess."

His courtroom demeanor seems to match his personality ---- quiet, and personally reserved. He is not outspoken unless he has to be, and he said he rarely gets mad or insulted.

However, some major trials really hurt him personally, he said.

There was the case of the brutal murder of 93-year-old Grace Vowell of Green Forest in 1999, who was beaten to death in her home. Epley knew Grace Vowell from his time as a Green Forest judge, and also knows her grandson, attorney Steve Vowell, who he sees in his courtroom all the time.

Without being able to comment on much of the trials of the four suspects, his facial expression changed to a dark, wounded look that said volumes.

Appeals in that case are possible, so his comments must be kept to himself.

He was the judge who had to set one of the defendants free because the state couldn't prove he was at the scene.

"I had to follow the law, it's that simple," he said.

Judge Epley grew up in Springdale, and got a degree in business administration from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. Beginning in 1969, he served four years in the Air Force in England.

During his university time he also completed a year and a half of law school, and when he returned from military service, he was drawn back to the law, inspired by his brother Lewis, who was moving to Eureka Springs to set up a law practice.

He earned his law degree from Fayetteville in 1974, and passed the bar on the first try, even though there was a seven year interruption since his first classes as a law student before joining the military.

He worked his way through law school by "throwing newspapers" and working as a catcher of newspapers as they came off the press for the Northwest Arkansas Times, where his father, Lewis Sr., had worked for 35 years as a Linotype operator in the hot-metal composing section of the newspaper.

His brother Lewis had started practicing law in Eureka Springs in 1961, "and he made a place for me . When I saw what Lewis did, it inspired me, and reminded me of the old TV show Perry Mason. It looked like fun to me, so off we went."

Epley said his brother, nine years older, "was the biggest influence on my career." His brother Charles also found his calling in Eureka, at Carroll County Abstract and Title Co.

The judge even did the requisite summer work as a Pontius Pilate in the Great Passion Play for two summers before his stint in the Air Force.

When he became the Eureka Springs municipal judge, he replaced the Hon. John O. Maberry, and began the work of dealing with every-day crime in Eureka Springs.

But it was important work to the young judge, as he dealt with DWI offenders and others who he wanted to help.

Epley said he sent a lot of people to Alcoholics Anonymous, and was good friends with the late Tommy Thomas, a co-founder of the Eureka Springs AA group.

"I still have people come up to me and thank me for the intervention," Epley said. "That is a fairly rare thing (compared to other criminal acts). By the grace of God we caught some of them before they did harm to themselves or others."

As a circuit judge, Epley has gained statewide attention for lowering the number of pending cases in Carroll County, besting bigger counties.

We had the fewest number of pending cases on the docket older than two years in the entire state," Epley said.

In Carroll County, Epley said, methamphetamine and the effects it has on people is one of his biggest worries. He said he would like to see a drug court here, but it is a state matter and beyond his control.

He mentioned that the Vowell murder was completely motivated by methamphetamine.

"I've had discussions with (prosecutor) Tony Rogers about a drug court, but it really is (his issue)."

The non-judicial Alan Epley is a trumpet player who played for the Razorback Band, and still plays quite often with other local musicians, and leads parades with his replica MG sports car.

Another love besides his wife of 50 years Evelyn, is his family of two grown children, Heather and Stuart, and his two grand-daughters.

He lives in Eureka Springs, where he passes his rare free time reading as many books as possible. He last read "Seabiscuit," and recommends it as a great read, and also likes the adventure stories of Clive Cussler.

He apparently gets quite enough non-fiction in the courtroom.

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