Judge Earnest E. Brown Jr. and Carla Wooley, the trial court adminstrator for the Jefferson-Lincoln County Circuit Court, also known as ‘Juvenile Court.’ Brown and Wooley have worked together professionally since 1998.
This article is a reprint from the copyrighted cover story for the October, 2016 edition of SEA Life magazine, published and by the Pine Bluff Commercial. Permission from The Commercial was granted to reproduce this article here.
Earnest Brown Jr.: ‘ ... do the best you can.’
By Ray King
In the 21 years since Sixth Division (Juvenile) Circuit Judge Earnest E. Brown Jr., finished law school and moved to Pine Bluff, he has been able to accomplish a number of things on his to-do list, but describes his current job as top of the list.
Those include being involved in politics by serving as a State Representative – teaching at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff – being in a courtroom while serving as a deputy prosecutor – owning his own business by opening his own law office – and now serving as Juvenile Court judge for Jefferson and Lincoln Counties, a position he was first elected to in 2008 and took office in 2009. “Along the way I met my life’s mate,” Brown said. “I met my wife who is a native of Pine Bluff. We have three kids.
“In thinking about it, just the number of things I’ve been able to do, the boards and commissions and the people I’ve met that have greatly influenced my life, and added to it – so I’ve been very blessed.”
His first exposure to the juvenile court system came when he was hired by former Prosecutor Betty Dickey as a deputy prosecutor.
“I thought I would do that for a year or two, get the experience and then go to D.C.,” Brown said. “That was my goal but I got in and was lucky enough to be assigned to juvenile court. It could have been district court but it was juvenile court.”
He said that when he worked for Dickey, there were three other, then deputy prosecutors, who have gone on to become judges – Circuit Judge Rob Wyatt, Circuit Judge Jodi Raines Dennis, and Jefferson County District Judge Kim Bridgforth.
“Kim and I were assigned together and worked closely together and I remember being nervous about going to court but having the chance to see all the court could do with DHS (Department of Human Services) and working with the families, I decided then that t experience changed the course of my life.”After working as a deputy prosecutor, Brown decided to switch gears and become an attorney in private practice where he said he developed a niche for doing family law like child custody cases.
“I had done the juvenile delinquency side as juvenile prosecutor and one day I decided to go into private practice, first with Cross, Kearney and McKissic and then with my own firm and one day attorney Sharon Nichols called me and wanted me to sub for her as an attorney representing families in DHS cases,” Brown said. “I thought I knew enough about juvenile court and could come in and do that. I was already doing some public defender work and I really enjoyed working with parents and representing them in those kinds of hearings. That exposed me to a whole other side of juvenile court. I really had not done a lot of those cases and it helped prepare me for dealing with a big part of my job.”
When then Judge Tommy Brown retired, Brown said he decided to run for the office.
“I said I wanted to do that one day but I never had the idea that it would come as soon as it did with Judge Tommy Brown retiring but the opportunity came,” he said. “Like I said, it was one of my life long dreams, my career dreams so I’ve been blessed that I had the opportunity.”
Brown described his first year in office as “a surreal experience.”
“Probably the majority of my practice from being a deputy prosecutor up until the time I took the bench was in this courtroom, in this particular setting doing juvenile work so when people said ‘Judge Brown’ it was like, who are they talking about,” he said. “Where’s judge Tommy Brown?”
“It took some adjustments to get used to that and then there were so many things I wanted to do in dealing with staffing and that first year, I probably worked as hard as I ever have and toward the end of the year, I was getting a little sick because I was going at such a hectic pace,” Brown said. “I was speaking to different groups, trying to put together so many different programs but one of the things I would say, looking back now, seven years later, going on eight is we have been able to sustain a lot of those programs and we’ve seen the effect of how those programs have helped with our truancy, have helped with juvenile crime, have helped keep families together and getting them back together and come into the system so, that first year was really a whirlwind. When I think about it, when you have a new judge, even if you sit as a special judge, it’s different when you become the judge.”
“I never really appreciated that until I got into the position,” he said.
Brown said as a judge, he had to make decisions based only on what the attorneys were presenting him.
“You’re making custody decisions and deciding one way or the other and it’s going to disappoint one person or the other but you have to go out there and make that decision,” he said. “There are a lot of things about being a judge. I later found out when I went to a conference out of state about compassion fatigue. I didn’t leave it here. I took it home. I still take it home sometimes but i have been able to to learn different coping techniques but that first year, I literally wore myself down mentally and physically so I have learned now, if somebody wants me to speak or wants me to do something else and I can’t do it, it’s OK for me to say I can’t do it but that first year I didn’t turn anything down. I was on alumni boards, I was doing it all.”
“That workshop they had, compassion fatigue for judges and they talked about maybe getting a garden or some other outlet so you don’t wear yourself down,” he said. “They actually talked about trauma by hearing cases of youth being abused and victims coming through. That first year really set the stage for me having some of the success we’ve had in later years but I had to learn to balance some things. I didn’t do a good job that first year balancing things, not at all. “
While he didn’t get a garden, Brown said he did find other things to do to keep from burning out.
“One thing is prioritizing the family,” he said. “Doing a lot more things with the family, so on Friday, I still work Friday but it’s OK to leave early and take the kids out and go to a movie. Go out to eat with my wife. Spend some more time out of town. I’m a big Razorback fan and try to go to some games, things like that and not being afraid to get away from some of this. I’ve found that it’s going to be here when I get back.”
Because of changes brought on by legislation and supreme court mandates, the juvenile court system is always changing and adapting to the times, Brown said.
“One of the changes, which has been good is that before, specialty courts and drug courts weren’t always developed for children and families but now we’re able to tap into that drug court money for the children, trying to get them off those drugs early and then we expanded that to my DHS cases,” Brown said. “We were having people that were constantly coming back that had tested positive for controlled substances, or when they were pregnant and we really didn’t have a specialized court to deal with that. Or with parents that were suffering from substance abuse and could not get their kids back.
Under the old system, Brown said those cases would come before him only three or so times a year, first for a probable cause, then a trial within 30 days, followed to see the child and family about six months later for permanency planning.
“One of the things we’ve been able to do and one of the things I’m proud of in dealing with those DHS clients and substance abuse issues is that we’ve been able to set up a monthly review and what we’ve found is that the more engagement that you have with those families, the better the success they have” Brown said.
Brown said when he first got elected, a friend suggested he visit other juvenile courts around the state and see how they operate, and he was able to travel to eight or 1O other other courts before taking the bench Jan. 1.
“One of the courts I went to was in Faulkner County,” Brown said. “Judge Rhonda Wood, who is now a justice with the Arkansas Supreme Court and a good friend of mine had a teen court and the teen court I have here is modeled after Faulkner County. It’s a great diversion tool, gives first-time offenders an opportunity but it also gives kids that may be interested in the criminal Justice system or in being a lawyer to be involved. This is our eighth year and we had one of our largest turnouts a couple of weeks ago. Almost 80 kids showed up.”
In addition to the teen court in Jefferson County, Brown also operates a teen court in Lincoln County, and said currently only North Little Rock and Washington County are doing similar programs.
“If you go to our national judges meetings and anything dealing with juveniles, teen court or peer court, they have different names but they’re a big, big deal,” Brown said. “It is something I’m always looking to enhance, to make it better. One of the parents came to me a couple of weeks ago telling me how teen court changed their child’s life. They were looking at going in one direction but they enjoyed teen court and learning more about the system that they’re now looking at criminal justice and that’s what I like to hear.”
In the teen court system, youthful offenders are given a chance to have their case heard by a jury of their peers, who decide an appropriate punishment. The charges are all misdemeanors, and can’t involve weapons or drugs.
“Teen court is one of my babies along with drug court so I sit in and observe,” Brown said. “People would be amazed at the level of seriousness that the kids have. I always tell them about confidentiality and they take it seriously. We had one young man come in for teen court and he was not dressed appropriately, came in with some socks and of course I’m observant because I do court all the time – socks had little marijuana things on them – the kids, kids sometimes pick up on things quicker than we can – teen court doesn’t work if the kids are laughing and joking and not taking it seriously so they have to deliver the message of what is what and those kids have a list of sanctions they can give and they take it very seriously.”
Juvenile Drug Court
“One of the questions frequently asked is do juveniles suffer from drug addiction” Brown said. “Yes they do.”
He said teen drug courts have just recently been included as a part of the specialty court program like adult drug courts and veterans courts, and that means that teen drug courts can apply for grants to deal with substance abuse issues.
“I have 25 slots so to speak in juvenile drug court the way the grant is set up but we always take more because sometimes you have ones that do not make it through,” Brown said. “We’ve been operating at over 30 no. We’re down to 23 right now but we have three or four that are set to come in. We’ve changed our juvenile drug court to operate more like the adult drug court in the sense that it’s not a class. Someone will come in and if he is doing well, we don’t have to wait for another person to catch up with him.”
Brown said that previously, there were graduation ceremonies held but that stopped because of confidentiality issues.
“We always graduated a class, now we graduate as they finish,” he said.” We have some that may take 18 months or longer the way we have it set up is a point system and some kids have graduated in nine or 10 months if they make all their groups, all their individuals and tested negative and they’ve been through hair follicle testing and fingernail testing and they’ve going to school, doing well, then we’ve had some that are stuck and are going to rehab.”
He said he is as pleased as he can be with juvenile drug court, particularly since there are now resources available to help the kids and their parents.
“Before, we had a lot of single parents, a lot of grandparents raising their kids and they couldn’t get here twice a month, first and third Monday,” Brown said. “Now we can offer transpiration, and to the rehab centers in Hot Springs, Fort Smith and Fayetteville. We can provide transportation to get a kid and a parent there and get them back. We have some money that we can help with cause they will need supplies and they may not have the money to do that.”
“We had gotten to a point that we had really struggled to barely get some folks in because they didn’t have the transportation, they couldn’t get to the appointments,” he said. “When the grant came in and we were able to get some folks in and I’m going to tell you, the benefits of residential treatment for those that are suffering severe addictions have been great. Those kids that have gone into rehab and made it through have done extremely well.”
Brown also quoted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in assessing his work, and how he wants people to remember him.
“Dr. King said ‘Whatever your life’s work is, do it well. A man should do his job so well that the living, the dead and the unborn could not do it better.’
“I believe whatever your assignment is, you should try to do the best that you can do and I’ve tried to do that whatever my assignment has been, you know, give it my all at that particular time and that’s what I want to do,” Brown said.