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Let's play a little game and let readers judge the state's highest judges on their relative skills in reading comprehension.

There is a sentence in state law, the meaning of which is in dispute in esteemed judicial officialdom. The difference of opinion owes surely to the complexity of the sentence's construction.

The law's vexing vagueness has stirred the fertile interpretive minds of no less than the chief justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court and the chief judge of the Arkansas Court of Appeals.

These courts occupy different floors of the state Justice Building, and different universes. Sometimes in recent years the ever-diligent administration of justice for the people has been interrupted by manifestations of the fact that these courts don't like each other, generally speaking.

Surely there are individual exceptions of civility among the 19--seven high, 12 appellate.

The Supreme Court seems to think the Court of Appeals doesn't do diddly and gets uppity in thinking it's on a par with the Supreme Court.

The Court of Appeals has been irked by blindsided administrative dictates from the higher court, not unlike the situation with this complicated legal phrasing that is our challenging topic today.

Here's how it might go: The Supreme Court might issue an order canceling all oral arguments during the virus. Then the Supreme Court might waive the rule for itself and conduct an oral argument. Then somebody might contend in the Supreme Court's behalf that it had held an oral argument amid the shutdown and the Court of Appeals hadn't.

So, let's play our game.

Arkansas Code Annotated 16-12-1-8(f)(1) says: "Law clerks for the Court of Appeals shall receive the same salaries as Supreme Court law clerks."

What in the world does that mean?

Chief Judge Rita Gruber of the Arkansas Court of Appeals told this newspaper in a recent article that, in her interpretation, the sentence saying "law clerks for the Court of Appeals shall receive the same salaries as Supreme Court law clerks" means that law clerks for the Court of Appeals shall receive the same salaries as Supreme Court law clerks.

Chief Justice Dan Kemp of the higher Arkansas Supreme Court told a reporter that the statutory language creates a "pay range" that salaries must fall into.

So, you be the judge of the judges. Who reads and comprehends better: Chief Judge Gruber or Chief Justice Kemp?

Which one indeed might need a better-paid law clerk to help him?

Oops. I seem to have put a thumb on the scale by using "him."

Just know that Chief Justice Kemp and the other justices of the Supreme Court are said to believe that the word "him" clearly means a range of genders.

This is all about the Supreme Court containing four or five regularly or occasionally huffy people in its seven-robe membership. They tend to think they don't get the proper respect.

(Note that I did not single out Justices Jo Hart, Karen Baker, Shawn Womack, Rhonda Wood and Courtney Hudson. Nor did I speculate that mild-mannered Chief Justice Kemp gets dispatched into the public by the aforementioned to earn his higher pay and roll under the bus.)

So the highest court unilaterally rearranged its personnel and costs in a way that allowed it to pay its justices' law clerks nice raises.

Then one day Judge Gruber at the Court of Appeals saw on a state government transparency website the salaries being paid to the Supreme Court's law clerks as of Jan. 1. Those clerks were getting from $85,000 to $101,000, depending on experience and level, while Court of Appeals clerks were at $70,000 to $83,000.

Those ranges didn't even overlap.

In February, Chief Judge Gruber notified the Legislature in writing of her court's need for about $500,000 to catch up its clerks to this development of which it had previously been unaware, as well as to the law.

Justice Kemp told this newspaper that Judge Gruber should have talked to him rather than go to the Legislature.

She replied they hadn't ever talked before (as in, why start now?).

Because of the budgetary crisis brought on by the coronavirus, the legislative Joint Budget Committee asked the Court of Appeals to stand down on the request in the recent fiscal session, thus permitting the violation of law to continue.

Personally, I'd have gone the other way. I'd have cut the Supreme Court's appropriation by an amount equaling the raise. But that's just me, and I'm a noted law-abider and tightwad.

All fun aside, it is of course a serious matter when no less than the Arkansas Supreme Court flouts a plain statute.

And it's a serious matter that the Supreme Court doesn't either reach out to the appellate court to coordinate the raises under the law or hold its horses while it tries get the law changed, which would be an appropriate proposal and which it assuredly will do in the next regular session.

------------v------------

John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at jbrummett@arkansasonline.com. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

Editorial on 05/21/2020

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