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Attorney General urges Arkansas Supreme Court to expedite appeal and stay suspension of LEARNS Act in education law case

Attorney General Tim Griffin filed Tuesday (May 30) an emergency motion for the Arkansas Supreme Court to stay and expedite an appeal of a circuit judge’s ruling that suspended the LEARNS Act until June 20. You can read a copy of the appeal here.

On Friday (May 26), Pulaski County Judge Herb Wright issued a temporary restraining order on Gov. Sarah Sanders’ signature education law claiming the plaintiffs – led by a group of Marvell-Elaine School District parents – had merit to question the emergency clause vote that put the law in effect immediately. The TRO pauses a move by the state to enter into a “transformation contract” between Marvell-Elaine and charter school operator Friendship Education Foundation.

The plaintiffs argued both chambers of the General Assembly did not hold separate votes on the bill and the emergency clause. They contend the state constitution calls for separate votes, citing Article 5, Section 1, which says the chambers “shall vote upon separate roll call” and “state the fact which constitutes such emergency.”

Judge Wright said Friday, “The word ‘separate’ cannot mean ‘the same.’ In order to pass a valid and enforceable emergency clause, the Arkansas General Assembly was required by Article 5, Section 1 to hold a separate roll-call vote, and they failed to do so.”

Griffin countered the circuit court ruling with a number of points aimed at persuading the state Supreme Court to stay the TRO and expedite consideration of the case.

“On Friday, the Pulaski County Circuit Court rubberstamped a proposed restraining order that blocks the LEARNS Act. That order effectively shutters the Department of Education, halts teacher raises, cancels maternity leave, freezes efforts to combat human trafficking and promote school safety, and threatens to delay the start of school,” Griffin said in the court filing.

“And beyond that, the order’s reasoning means that every emergency clause for decades — from appropriations to criminal statutes — was defective, opening the floodgates to claims that everything from this Court’s budget to long-final criminal convictions is invalid. A single circuit court lacks the authority to sow such chaos, so this Court should immediately stay that order pending its own review,” he added.

While Griffin alluded to a number of complications if the TRO is kept, he also argued that the process by which the legislature passed the emergency clause for the bill was appropriate.

“… [T]he circuit court’s holding — invalidating the longstanding practice of voting simultaneously but separately on the legislation and the emergency clause — threatens many laws. A college student counting on a scholarship to pay for summer courses starting next week suddenly cannot. Act 413. A teenager who obtained his driver’s license this month but had his permit for less than 30 days is now driving illegally. Act 550. Prison guards who carry a gun in their car are now breaking the law. Act 752. Homeless shelters stopping an overdose might be too. Act 586. The Department of Health can’t license rural emergency hospitals for another two months. Act 59,” he wrote.

He also warned there would be calamity for the state’s budget, which passed with an emergency clause. The state’s new fiscal year begins on July 1, 2023.

“The order would render every salary, rental, or utility payment made between July 1 and August 1 for decades an illegal exaction — and require the State to shut down this summer to avoid breaking the law again,” Griffin said.

Ali Noland, attorney for the plaintiffs, provided additional comments in response to the appeal’s filing today.

“When passing the LEARNS Act and several other bills this session, the legislature blatantly violated the requirements of the Arkansas Constitution. Now, the Attorney General’s Office is arguing that the plain language of Article 5, Section 1 should be ignored and that the legislature should be excused from following the Constitution simply because the consequences of their blunder would be inconvenient. In today’s filing, the Attorney General’s office also makes the unbelievable assertion that the courts should ignore the official video footage of the bill’s passage, which clearly shows that the legislature failed to take separate roll-call votes to pass the emergency clause. The Attorney General claims that the courts may only consider the journals of the House and Senate, where lawmakers falsely recorded separate votes after taking only one,” Noland said in a statement to Talk Business & Politics.

“Further, the Defendants are making the ridiculous, nonsensical argument that the constitutionally required ‘separate’ votes occurred simultaneously. As Judge Wright said in his ruling, ‘separate’ cannot mean ‘the same.’ The Plaintiffs are confident that the Supreme Court will easily see through these bad faith arguments. We plan to file a responsive briefing this week and look forward to the opportunity to argue the merits of this case in full. As this case plays out, Arkansans should pay very close attention to whether their elected officials keep the oaths that they took to uphold and protect the Arkansas Constitution,” she added.

Roby Brock is the Editor-in-Chief and Host of Talk Business & Politics.
This content has been contributed by the staff of our content partners Talk Business and Politics.