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OPINION | DOUG SZENHER: Insert foot

Playing fast and loose with the law by DOUG SZENHER SPECIAL TO THE DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE | September 10, 2021 at 3:18 a.m.

During his single term as governor of Arkansas, the late Frank White created something of a brief national media flurry after saying he had signed the ill-fated "Creation Science" bill passed by the 1981 General Assembly without reading it.

If memory serves me correctly, he later clarified his remarks to mean he hadn't read some last-minute amendments to the bill, but had, indeed, read earlier versions of it.

No matter. The damage was done, and the rest of the country had a few more laughs at our expense than they would have had from just the embarrassment of the soon-to-be-declared-unconstitutional legislation merely having been adopted--with or without prior gubernatorial perusal.

It arguably was the second most foot-in-mouth comment of any 20th century Arkansas governor. (See: Faubus, O.E.; "Just because I said it doesn't make it so.")

Fast-forward 40 years. We now have Asa Hutchinson making his bid for most dubious statement by a 21st century governor of the Natural State. He apparently was struck with a recent epiphany that caused him to announce that this year's General Assembly bill barring local governmental entities from imposing mask mandates for protection against infectious diseases such as covid-19 is unconstitutional.

Yes; that very same bill he, himself, signed into law.

Evidently, on the day he signed it, the governor must have misplaced his law degree, or at least forgot what he supposedly learned in one or more constitutional law classes, along with disregarding any experience on the subject he might have gleaned during his years as a U.S. attorney.

No doubt, now that the issue has backfired on all involved in putting that statute on the books, the governor is hoping one or more of those "activist" judges he and his conservative colleagues frequently complain about will come along and bail him out, since our constitution doesn't provide for a mulligan allowing a governor to veto a piece of legislation he previously signed.

To his credit, I guess, at least he's showing some degree of remorse that this awful piece of legislation became law. That's more than the unrepentant legislators who proposed and passed it, and are still quite proud of their efforts.

In the excellent movie "Absence of Malice," the late Wilford Brimley appears on screen for only about 20 minutes of the approximately two-hour film, but he manages to completely steal the show in that brief period.

He plays a crusty, no-nonsense assistant U.S. attorney general none too happy about having to drop whatever he was doing in Washington and come to Miami to sort out a major legal/public relations mess involving the local U.S. attorney's office.

The scrupulous but politically naïve U.S. attorney, a decidedly unethical special prosecutor in his office, an ambitious reporter and her aggressive newspaper, and a local businessman being squeezed by all of them for information he may or may not have about a missing union organizer have all converged to create a major stink and raise all kinds of questions about the investigation into the disappearance.

After grilling the participants in the matter, Brimley's character quickly discovers that all of them--some a lot more than others--have been playing fast and loose with the truth, and, on occasion, with the law as well. Although he decides nobody's going to be charged with a crime--at least for the moment--he lets them know in no uncertain terms that some heads are going to roll, and the ones that don't roll will at minimum have a lot of egg on their faces after he announces his findings.

As he's wrapping things up, Brimley, clearly disgusted with what he's uncovered, growls, "It ain't legal. And worse than that, by God, it ain't right." In other words, he, alone among them, recognizes a much higher authority--a moral one--than the laws of mere humans.

If there's a better assessment out there of the General Assembly's work product in recent years, I'd sure like to hear it.


Doug Szenher lives in Little Rock.

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