Districting suit likely to lose, judge says -- then rules against it

A lawsuit challenging Arkansas' election law in hopes of keeping a proposed constitutional amendment on November's ballot stalled Tuesday in federal court.

The League of Women Voters, the plaintiff in the lawsuit, was warned by Fayetteville U.S. District Judge Timothy Brooks during a hearing Monday that it likely would lose.

Brooks said he gave that warning so that organization's lawyers could prepare for their next move just seven weeks before the Nov. 3 election. His 16-page ruling was handed down Tuesday -- about 24 hours after the hearing.

The League of Women Voters is backing a proposed constitutional amendment that would alter how legislative and congressional districts are set up. It would do so by establishing an "independent" commission that supporters claim would remove political considerations from the process. The boundaries are currently redrawn every 10 years by a board comprised of the secretary of state, governor and attorney general.

The amendment would require voter approval, and the way to get the issue on the November ballot is by collecting at least 89,152 petition signatures from registered voters.

Republican Secretary of State John Thurston denied the group's signature petitions, saying the initiative campaign didn't comply with a requirement that all canvassers pass criminal-background checks.

The league's lawyers said compliance with the background-check provision is impossible because it forces amendment supporters to either lie about the background checks or have their petitions rejected by election regulators. The group's attorney called it a "Kafkaesque system" in court on Monday.

In his ruling, Brooks stated that a preliminary injunction "would not be appropriate" because the court "is not persuaded of the Plaintiffs' likelihood of success on the merits of their claim."

In his ruling, Brooks called the plaintiff's claim "not plausible." The judge had said during Monday's hearing that he thought the law could be followed without anyone having to make false statements about the background checks.

Brooks also dismissed the case with prejudice, so it cannot be taken back to court.

Washington County League of Women Voters president Bonnie Miller, who is named as a plaintiff in the lawsuit, could not be reached Tuesday for comment.

Chris Powell, spokesman for Thurston, who is named as the defendant in the lawsuit, said his office had no comment on the ruling.