Plaintiffs in a voting-rights lawsuit that succeeded in Pulaski County Circuit Court only to have a judge's injunction stayed by the state Supreme Court just over a week later were handed another setback Friday when the state's high court denied their request for an expedited availability of the trial's transcript.
Earlier this week, Jess Askew III, one of the plaintiffs' attorneys, filed an emergency motion for expedited consideration and petition for the writ. The attempt to get the transcript of the four-day bench trial that was held in March came in hopes of moving the appeal forward and getting a final ruling before the November general elections.
On Thursday, Dylan Jacobs, deputy solicitor general in the Arkansas attorney general's office, filed a brief opposing the plaintiffs' petition, which Askew answered in a tendered reply just after noon Friday. The unsigned, two-sentence order denying the plaintiffs' petition without explanation was filed 20 minutes later by the Supreme Court.
The lawsuit -- filed in December on behalf of the League of Women Voters, Arkansas United and five individual registered voters -- targeted four laws passed in the last legislative session that the plaintiffs said would disenfranchise voters who are poor, members of minority groups, immigrants or are dealing with chronic health problems. Defendants in the lawsuit are Secretary of State John Thurston and the Arkansas Board of Election Commissioners.
The contested laws were part of a slate of legislation affecting voting in Arkansas. The measures were passed by the General Assembly last year after repeated claims by former President Donald Trump that widespread voter fraud had cost him the 2020 presidential election.
After Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen granted a permanent injunction March 18 to block enforcement of the legislation, attorneys for the defendants filed an appeal with the state Supreme Court on March 31, asking the court to stay Griffen's ruling. A stay was issued the following day.
In making his ruling, Griffen said Arkansas legislators' fears of voter fraud could not justify passing laws restricting voting without proof of the conduct that the laws were purportedly passed to address.
The brief, one-page order issued April 1 by the Supreme Court was unsigned and gave no reason for issuing the stay. The order denying the writ petition was also brief.
The motion from the plaintiffs -- appellees in the appeal -- noted that because the full trial transcript had not yet been made available, briefing on the merits of the case could not be filed. The plaintiffs asked that the court grant emergency accelerated consideration of the matter and petitioned the court to issue a writ of certiorari to complete the record "on an accelerated basis, within one calendar week of the issuance of the writ."
According to the motion, the defendants -- appellants in the appeal -- filed a partial record of the trial on March 30 with the Supreme Court minus the trial transcript.
"Since then," the motion said, "Appellees have attempted to work with the court reporter to expedite the transcript due to the urgency of the issues on appeal and the importance of resolving those issues before upcoming elections."
Once the trial transcript has been provided and the record is complete, the motion said, expedited briefing and consideration of the matter would allow for a decision before absentee ballots for the general election are printed and distributed in September for the November general election.
In an opposition brief to the plaintiffs' motion and petition filed Thursday, Jacobs, accused the plaintiffs of utilizing delaying tactics and then seeking to expedite the process as various deadlines approach. Calling the motion "odd as it is unnecessary," Jacobs also argued that state Supreme Court rules don't allow the appellees to seek a writ of certiorari to complete the record or lodge that record with the court; that those responsibilities fall to the appellant.
"The challenged laws went into effect last year, have been in place in multiple local elections, and will be effective during the May primary," Jacobs wrote. "As explained in Appellant's stay motion, this Court is likely to reverse the permanent injunction in any case. Appellees thus provide no basis for excusing their procrastination, overriding this Court's rules, prioritizing this matter over other trial and appellate matters, or requiring the court reporter to do what they don't even claim is possible."
In a reply filed just after noon on Friday, Askew wrote that the reason for requesting expedited consideration is to try and resolve the matter in advance of the November election, and he said the appellants, "having successfully obtained a stay of the Circuit Court's injunction ... seek to delay this Court's decision, potentially beyond the November general election."
Askew wrote that the trial transcript, "will demonstrate that during the four-day trial, in which Appellants did not offer a single exhibit and presented only their own corporate designees as witnesses, Appellants could not justify the four voter suppression laws at issue."
As the four laws currently stand, Act 249 requires voters who fill out provisional ballots to submit photocopies of their IDs by noon on the Monday after Election Day for their votes to be counted. Those voters previously could give sworn statements when casting a provisional ballot to ensure their votes were counted.
Act 728 prohibits people from standing within 100 feet of a polling site except to vote or for another lawful purpose. Critics have said the law would prohibit such activities as handing out water or snacks to voters standing in long lines waiting to vote.
Act 736 introduced a requirement that a voter's signature on an absentee ballot be verified by checking the person's voter registration application. Before, state law allowed election workers to check multiple signatures. Earlier in the trial, several witnesses testified that the change could present obstacles for many Arkansans, particularly those with ailments like arthritis or nephropathy, which can make a voter's signature inconsistent.
Act 973 moved the mail-in ballot deadline forward from the Monday before an election to the Friday before.
Supporters of the Republican-sponsored laws say they strengthen Arkansas' election integrity and bolster public confidence in the system. Opponents say the laws deliberately make voting harder -- and sometimes impossible, especially for minority voters, older voters and voters of limited economic means.
At present, all four laws will continue in effect until the state Supreme Court can give the matter full consideration and then decide whether to lift the stay or overturn Griffen's ruling.
As of Friday night, no date for a hearing on the matter had been entered into the record.