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Attorney general argues state Supreme Court should not dismiss LEARNS Act case as moot

LEARNS ruling needed, he says by Neal Earley | August 19, 2023 at 3:26 a.m.
Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin (left) and the Arkansas Supreme Court building are shown in Little Rock in these undated file photos. (Left, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford; right, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette file photo)

The Arkansas attorney general's office fired back at plaintiffs in the LEARNS Act lawsuit Friday, arguing the state Supreme Court should not dismiss the case as moot.

In a court filing Friday, the attorney general's office asks the Supreme Court to "invoke the public-interest exception to mootness, reverse the circuit court's erroneous, chaos-sowing order, and dismiss this case."

In a brief filed Aug. 11, plaintiffs in the lawsuit challenging the LEARNS Act's emergency clause asked the Arkansas Supreme Court to dismiss the case, saying it has become moot since the law took effect Aug. 1.

The lawsuit, filed by a group of parents and grandparents from Phillips County and two public education activists, argued the LEARNS Act's emergency clause, a parliamentary move that made law take effect immediately, was invalid. Without an emergency clause, laws take effect 91 days after the legislative session ends.

On June 30, Pulaski County Circuit Judge Herbert Wright ruled the LEARNS Act's emergency clause did not pass constitutional muster. The case is now in front of the Supreme Court, after Attorney General Tim Griffin appealed Wright's ruling.

The lawsuit, filed May 8, argued lawmakers violated the Arkansas Constitution by not holding a separate vote on the LEARNS Act's emergency clause. Instead, the Legislature held one simultaneous vote for the LEARNS Act and the emergency clause, a normal procedure lawmakers have used for decades.

Under Article 1, Section 5, of the Arkansas Constitution, the General Assembly must hold a "separate roll call" vote to pass an emergency clause, which needs a two-thirds vote in both chambers.

The attorney general's office points to the fact that while the votes for the LEARNS Act and the emergency clause were made simultaneously they were recorded separately in the House and Senate's journals, and argues that this is the only official record of the votes and therefore the only one the court should consider.

In the reply brief filed Friday, Griffin's office argued if the Supreme Court did not overturn Wright's "chaos-sowing order," it would prompt further lawsuits challenging other laws passed in a similar fashion.

"Indeed, absent immediate correction by this Court, the circuit court's order threatens to generate a plethora of litigation challenging countless expenditures, long-final criminal judgments, and an unknowable number of agency actions," according to the reply brief.

The filing also reiterated earlier arguments by the attorney general that the issue should be left to the Legislature -- not the courts -- as it is a political question, and that the plaintiffs don't have standing due to sovereign immunity.

While the underlying dispute of the case is no longer relevant, the attorney general asked the Supreme Court to issue a ruling as it "involves a major separation-of-powers issue."

In briefs filed with the Supreme Court on Aug. 11, Ali Noland, attorney for the plaintiffs in the case, asked the Supreme Court to dismiss the case since the LEARNS Act, with or without a valid emergency clause, took effect Aug. 1.

"That date has passed, and the LEARNS Act is now being implemented," Noland said. "Whether this Court affirms, reverses, or dismisses the circuit court's order will not change that, meaning that the issue is now moot. Were the Court to decide the appeal, it would effectively be providing an advisory opinion aimed at shaping future litigation, not changing any outcome in the present case."

Noland also argued the LEARNS Act's emergency clause failed to state a proper need to use the parliamentary move. She argued since Wright's ruling addressed the procedure in which the emergency act was passed but not "substance and language" of it, the attorney general's office could not appeal a judgment Wright had yet to make.

The plaintiffs filed the lawsuit May 8, after the Arkansas Board of Education used a provision of the LEARNS Act to approve a transformational contract allowing the Friendship Education Foundation, a charter school nonprofit, to take control of the Marvell-Elaine School District in Phillips County.

Print Headline: AG seeks mootness exception in lawsuit


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