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The budget for the Arkansas Supreme Court hit a stone wall Thursday, as Republican and Democratic lawmakers deadlocked over issues raised with the high court's spending authority.

Following the impasse, several Democrats who had pushed to move forward with the high court's roughly $11 million budget for the next fiscal year accused Republicans of wielding their authority over the court's spending in a retaliatory manner after several high-profile court decisions which had angered GOP lawmakers.

Republicans suggested that they were flexing their authority in an attempt to rein in the courts.

"Today we took steps to hold our Supreme Court accountable by holding their budget," tweeted state Sen. Trent Garner, R- El Dorado, shortly after he left the committee meeting Thursday.

Garner's tweet followed an earlier post in October in which he threatened "there will be consequences, starting with [the court's] budget," after a 6-1 ruling by the justices which blocked Issue 1, a legislatively-referred constitutional amendment, from going before voters during last month's election.

"I do think that is the genesis of what went on this morning," said state Sen. Joyce Elliott, D- Little Rock.

A so-called "tort reform" amendment, Issue 1 proposed a number of changes to the judiciary, including caps on attorneys fees, limits to certain lawsuit damages and a shift in court rule-making authority from the justices to the Legislature. In striking down the measure, the Supreme Court's majority said lawmakers had violated the state Constitution by "log-rolling" several distinct changes into one amendment.

State Rep. Bob Ballinger, R- Hindsville, who led the challenge to the court's budget Thursday, was also the chief House sponsor of the legislation to refer Issue 1.

Ballinger said his concerns with the court's budget had to do with a cash fund making up more than half of the court's appropriation without any references in budget documents to how the money was being spent.

Marty Sullivan, the director of the Administrative Office of the Courts, told lawmakers the fund was paid for with Bar Association dues, not taxpayers funds, and then printed out reports for each of the lawmakers showing a breakdown of the fund's expenses in the last two fiscal years. He noted that legislative auditors had conducted routine audits of the fund and found no issues.

"There's nothing nefarious going on here," Sullivan said.

Still, Ballinger proposed eliminating all spending authority from the fund before moving on with the rest of the court's budget. Democrats balked, offering to move forward with the full requested budget, while "flagging" the cash fund for further discussions during the session.

Votes on both motions failed to pass, and the committee was forced to move on to other budgets.

Ballinger said lawmakers would likely move forward with writing their own budget for the court ahead of the General Session, which starts in January, before hammering out a compromise with court staff.

The budget recommendation being considered by lawmakers Thursday was for Fiscal Year 2020, which begins next July. The actions by the committee did not affect the court's current budget, which runs until June 30.

Read Friday's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette for full details.


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Archived Comments

  • RBear
    November 15, 2018 at 12:43 p.m.

    Looks like we have a few lawmakers who like to bully by budget. Of course, they are just mad because their convoluted ballot measure didn't make it to the voting booths. But to pull these kind of shenanigans just shows how immature and childish they are.

  • Nodmcm
    November 15, 2018 at 12:53 p.m.

    What if the court found some other law to the legislature's liking unconstitutional? Likely two can play at this game.

  • GOHOGS19
    November 15, 2018 at 1:06 p.m.

    this action makes sense, no other cash funded state agency could get their budget approved if they did not show a detail of planned expenses.

  • hah406
    November 15, 2018 at 1:10 p.m.

    Ballinger and Garner, it is not your job to police the courts. The judicial branch is a co-equal branch of government. You are clearly taking this action because you didn't agree with their decision on proposition 1 this year. If you had written a better ballot measure, or split it into the four or five separate issues it encompasses, it would have survived constitutional muster. Don't punish the court for you two being idiots.

  • coalminer
    November 15, 2018 at 1:20 p.m.

    As one of multiple R legislators who along with D’s voted for the substitute motion to affirm ASC’s budget with a “flag” that allows questions to be answered before session, I question the reporters unstated slant this was D vs. R vote. It was not. On this mobile page it says “Your (D-G) subscription supports journalism that matters”. I hope journalism can include important facts next time, not just whip up a news story. Sen. Terry Rice

  • RBBrittain
    November 15, 2018 at 1:26 p.m.

    If the cash fund actually does come from Bar Association dues, since Arkansas is a "non-integrated" bar state (i.e., the Bar Association is a separate private entity lawyers are NOT legally required to join), the solution is simple: The Bar Association can control its OWN money without running it thru the judiciary, so the corrupt legislature can't touch it. Touche!

    November 15, 2018 at 3:03 p.m.

    The article is not accurate concerning the fund from lawyer's fees. The fund is held by "The Bar of Arkansas" and not the "Arkansas Bar Association." The "Bar of Arkansas" is fund created by the Court into which all lawyers pay a fee every year to maintain their law licenses. The money is not collected or held by the Arkansas Bar Association. Marty Sullivan is correct that the fund is not taxpayer money.

  • jpaganrichmondedu
    November 15, 2018 at 3:49 p.m.

    I have been a member of the Arkansas bar for almost 40 years. To maintain my law license, I pay an annual fee to the state Supreme Court's clerk. That yearly license fee is totally unrelated to the annual dues that I pay to the Arkansas Bar Association, a voluntary organization.

    I suspect that the so-called "bar association" funds at issue in the controversy recounted in this news article are actually the proceeds from the Court's mandatory license fee rather than dues collected by the voluntary Arkansas Bar Association.

    The Supreme Court sets the mandatory license fee by rule. Constitutionally, the power to levy license fees on lawyers is grounded in the Supreme Court's exclusive authority to regulate the practice of law. I commend the Supreme Court and the Administrative Office of the Courts for their transparency in disclosing to the legislature the way that they spend the license fees that my fellow lawyers and I pay for the privilege of practicing law. But legislators should not interpret this disclosure as a concession that they possess the power to control attorneys' license fees. That power belongs solely to the Supreme Court.

    When I served in the Arkansas Senate, half of that body's members were lawyers, as was the Lieutenant Governor. It was not unusual for lawyer-legislators to disagree with particular Supreme Court opinions. I never heard anyone question the importance of preserving judicial independence, however. I'm certain that every lawyer in the chamber would have cried foul at the slightest hint that fiscal retaliation was an appropriate way to criticize a judicial decision. If a member of the General Assembly believes that the Arkansas Supreme Court has erred, he or she should say so in a constitutionally proper way: by urging the attorney general to petition for a rehearing; by supporting an appeal to the United States Supreme Court if the case falls within that Court's jurisdiction; or by sponsoring a constitutional amendment that would effectively overrule the state Supreme Court. Interfering with the Supreme Court's administrative operations is not the right way to do the People's business. Thanks for thinking about this important issue. John Pagan

  • maynardgkrebs
    November 15, 2018 at 4:01 p.m.

    Hey, GoHogs, the courts aren’t “any other cash funded state agency.” They are a co-equal branch of government. Did you take civics?

  • JakeTidmore
    November 15, 2018 at 4:44 p.m.

    This is just Garner & Meeker and some other power-hungry legislators mad about the Courts taking Issue 1 off the ballots for being unconstitutional (which it was).
    It's just petty revenge by petty politicians. Lowlife taking the low road is becoming the rule of thumb in our state legislature. You elect clowns so don't be surprised if a cheap circus shows up.