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Justice & Crime

Arkansas lawmakers raise concerns about immunity ruling


LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas lawmakers said Tuesday they're concerned about the impact of a recent court ruling that they can't scale back the state's immunity from lawsuits, and said they may need to put the issue before voters in two years if a group can't get its proposal on the ballot this fall.

A legislative panel discussed the Arkansas Supreme Court's ruling earlier this month that said a 2006 measure allowing lawsuits against the state for violating its minimum wage law conflicted with the state constitution's granting of sovereign immunity from suits. The ruling has prompted concern from critics that it will prevent a wide range of court challenges against the state, including both Freedom of Information Act and whistleblower lawsuits.

Republican Rep. Bob Ballinger said the ruling may be the biggest since the yearslong Lake View case that eventually led to an overhaul of how the state funds public education.

"I do think a constitutional amendment is warranted," Ballinger, who chairs the House State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee, told lawmakers.

A group formed last week with the goal of putting a measure that would restore the Legislature's power to scale back the state's immunity on the ballot. It has submitted a proposal to the attorney general's office. If approved, the group can begin gathering the nearly 85,000 signatures from registered voters needed to put the proposal before voters in November. If that fails, Ballinger said he believed there would be enough support in the Legislature next year to put a similar proposal on the 2020 ballot.

The court's ruling has already been cited in several cases involving the state and prompted some challenges to be dismissed.

A top attorney for the state, however, said he believed the ruling was narrow and would primarily affect cases in which monetary damages are being sought.

"I think if the state is acting illegally or unconstitutionally, someone is allowed to bring a claim to say, 'Stop that,'" state Solicitor General Lee Rudofsky told the panel.

Democratic state Sen. Will Bond said the fallout shows the ruling is being viewed more widely. It has created confusion, he said.

"Until the ruling is clarified ... we're going to be in a period where no one is exactly sure what the law is," Bond said. "Usually, that's not good for the citizenry, meaning they have to expend more resources and battle through the system to get a fair day in court."


Follow Andrew DeMillo on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo