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Arkansas Supreme Court justice bows out of mask mandate suit

by Lara Farrar | October 21, 2021 at 3:22 a.m.
Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Rhonda Wood.

An Arkansas Supreme Court justice has recused herself from a case that seeks to block the enforcement of a law that prohibits state and local governments, including public school districts, from mandating individuals to wear masks during the coronavirus pandemic.

Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Rhonda Wood recused herself from the lawsuit in a letter sent to Arkansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Dan Kemp on Wednesday. At the end of September, the Arkansas Supreme Court denied the state's request to end an injunction by a lower court that barred the enforcement of the ban on government mask mandates.

This meant that public institutions, including schools, could legally enforce mask mandates on a local level should they feel it necessary to protect employees or students.

Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox issued the temporary injunction of Act 1002 of 2021 in August after several parents, two school districts and Pulaski County officials filed the lawsuit challenging the legality of the face-covering ban, passed by the General Assembly in April.

Another hearing is scheduled in November in Fox's court. From there, the suit could again appear before the Arkansas Supreme Court.

Wood could not be reached for comment Wednesday evening.

Kemp declined to comment, directing questions to Wood.

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On Sept. 2, Wood submitted a letter disclosing that one of her relatives is associated with Friday, Eldredge, & Clark, LLP, a firm representing the Little Rock School District.

The Marion School District is the other district joining the plaintiffs in the suit.

"Out of an abundance of caution, I write to disclose that I have immediate family associated with the firm of Friday, Eldredge, & Clark, LLP," Wood wrote. "To my knowledge, they are not counsel in the above referenced matter before this court.

"If either party has information that necessitates that I disqualify myself from the pending matter, please notify me by letter copied to all counsel and filed of record," Wood continued.

Under the Arkansas Constitution, should a Supreme Court justice be disqualified or unable to temporarily serve, the governor will have 30 days to commission a special justice. More time can be granted under some circumstances.

If the governor fails to appoint a replacement within the set time period, the lieutenant governor can commission a temporary replacement.

Also in September, Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Shawn Womack submitted a disclosure that his law clerk would not be working on the case, as the law clerk worked with Sen. Trent Garner, R-El Dorado, during the session in which Act 1002 was passed.

Garner was the primary sponsor of the law banning mask mandates.

"Because we are taking steps to ensure that he will not participate, his history with the case will not affect my objectivity," Womack wrote. "I do not plan to recuse in this matter."

Public health experts have said wearing face coverings helps curtail the spread of the coronavirus. Under Act 1002 of 2021, it's illegal for most state and local government entities to require masks.

The plaintiffs contend the legislation is too strict and overreaching. Local entities, especially school districts, should have the flexibility to enforce mask mandates without violating the law, they argued.

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Print Headline: Justice recuses from challenge of mask-mandate ban

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