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Judge dismisses Sorvillo challenge in District 32 House election

by John Moritz | December 16, 2020 at 5:02 a.m.
Rep. Jim Sorvillo, R-Little Rock, sits in his seat in the House chamber Friday Nov. 6, 2020 in Little Rock during a meeting of the House caucus. Committee assignments and seniority rankings in the House were put on hold because of two House races, including Sorvillo's District 32 race against Ashley Hudson, that have yet to be decided.

A lawsuit challenging Democrat Ashley Hudson's 24-vote victory in a west Little Rock House district was dismissed on jurisdictional grounds by a Pulaski County circuit judge on Tuesday.

The judge, Mackie Pierce of the 6th Judicial Circuit, at times appeared frustrated with Sorvillo's request to have the court intervene more than a month after the election and on the heels of other legal challenges filed by the three-term lawmaker.

"I don't think I have jurisdiction in this matter whatsoever," Pierce said.

Pierce dismissed the case with prejudice, meaning that Sorvillo and his attorneys cannot file a new lawsuit along similar grounds. However, Pierce noted that Sorvillo still has a remaining avenue open with the Arkansas Claims Commission, a quasi-judicial body.

Later Tuesday, that avenue remained open as the Claims Commission voted to move toward a full hearing on Sorvillo's claims on Jan. 4, with the commissioners agreeing to push the matter back from an earlier-scheduled meeting in order to allow Sorvillo and his attorneys more time to interview witnesses.

Sorvillo's central claim involves an error that led election workers in Pulaski County to mistakenly count as many as 32 disqualified ballots -- more than Hudson's margin of victory in the District 32 race -- which he argues hopelessly tainted the results.

Hudson, an attorney, has countered that the ballots were legally cast and were unlikely to change the result anyway because of the likelihood that at least some of them went to Sorvillo.

In a statement released Tuesday through his attorney, A.J. Kelly, Sorvillo said, "I heard the Pulaski Circuit Court today, and appreciate the Court's prompt consideration. After today's hearings in Circuit Court and the Claims Commission, we remain cautiously optimistic as we look at the next steps. Many thanks for the prayers both for Ms. Hudson's and my families."

Kelly said he would not make a decision on whether to appeal the dismissal of the lawsuit until Pierce enters a written order.

Sorvillo filed his first lawsuit contesting the results less than two weeks after the Nov. 3 election, but that lawsuit was dismissed by Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen, who said he lacked jurisdiction until the results were certified.

Sorvillo appealed Griffen's decision to the Arkansas Supreme Court after the GOP-controlled Pulaski County Election Commission voted to certify the results, then Sorvillo dropped that appeal after deciding to take his case to the Claims Commission.

The Claims Commission, a quasi-judicial body whose decisions are reviewed by the state Legislature, agreed to hold a full hearing on Sorvillo's request that the House District 32 election results be invalidated and a new election be called. That hearing, originally to be held just before Christmas, was pushed back Tuesday until after the holidays, largely at the request of Sorvillo's attorney.

With his case before the Claims Commission pending, Sorvillo filed a second lawsuit last week seeking to block Gov. Asa Hutchinson and Secretary of State John Thurston from taking any action to formalize Hudson as the winner. That was the lawsuit dismissed Tuesday by Pierce.

Attorneys for Hutchinson and Thurston, both Republicans, sought to dismiss the lawsuit by arguing in court briefs that Sorvillo lacked standing and had waited too long to file the second lawsuit. Hudson has responded to Sorvillo's filing of multiple lawsuits and complaints by accusing him of "forum shopping."

On Tuesday, she repeated those assertions when responding to Pierce's decision to dismiss the case.

"I think that Judge Pierce made the correct decision and he was correct to point out the various forums that this case has already been heard in," she said.

Hudson's attorney, Jennifer Waymack Standerfer, argued Tuesday that the Claims Commission should dismiss Sorvillo's complaint for lack of standing and other issues.

The co-chairman of the commission, Paul Morris, said he believed the commission had standing to hear the case, though he noted that its powers were otherwise limited. "Ultimately, the only thing we can do is issue a nonbinding recommendation to the House," he said.

Hudson said afterward that she was not surprised by the commission's decision to move forward with the case and remained hopeful for the commission to make rulings on the merits of Sorvillo's complaint.

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