New Arkansas Supreme Court justice Hiland recuses from LEARNS Act case

New state justice does not say why

Cody Hiland (left) shakes hands with Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders at the state Capitol in Little Rock in this July 3, 2023 file photo. Hiland had just been introduced as the newest justice on the Arkansas Supreme Court, filling the open seat left by the passing of Justice Robin F. Wynne in late June. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)

Newly appointed Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Cody Hiland has recused from the LEARNS Act case, according to a letter he filed Friday.

Hiland did not state a reason for his recusal, but just before Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders appointed him to the state Supreme Court, he served as the chair of the Republican Party of Arkansas. The lawsuit challenges when the LEARNS Act, Sanders' plan to overhaul public education, can take effect.

A Pulaski County Circuit judge ruled lawmakers failed to follow the constitution when passing the law's emergency clause, a legislative move that makes bills take effect immediately. Without an emergency clause, laws do not take effect until 91 days after the legislative session officially ends.

Sanders, a Republican, appointed Hiland to the Supreme Court on July 3 to fill the vacancy left after the death of Justice Robin Wynne. Before becoming chair of the state's GOP, Hiland served as U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas from 2017 to 2020, an appointee of then-President Donald J. Trump. He also worked on Sanders' campaign and was chief counsel at the Arkansas Department of Public Safety.

A native of Bee Branch, Hiland also served as the prosecuting attorney for the 20th Judicial Circuit which covers Faulkner, Van Buren and Searcy counties. He also served as an aide to former Gov. Mike Huckabee, who is Sanders' father. Hiland is a graduate of the University of Central Arkansas and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock William H. Bowen School of Law.

Wynne, considered to be a moderate on the court, died June 21 at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences at the age of 70.

According to the Arkansas Constitution, the governor may appoint a replacement for a vacancy on the Supreme Court. Hiland will remain on the court until a justice is elected to serve the remainder of Wynne's term.

The LEARNS Act heads to the state Supreme Court after Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin appealed a lower court ruling that put the education law on hold. The lawsuit came after a group of Phillips County residents and two public school advocates sued the state after the Arkansas State Board of Education used the LEARNS Act to approve a transformation contract, which allows a charter school non-profit to run the Marvell-Elaine School District.

Pulaski County Circuit Judge Herbert Wright ruled June 30 the education law's emergency clause "was not passed in accordance with the Arkansas Constitution."

The Supreme Court has set July 28 as the date for the first briefs to be due for the appeal, with a ruling likely to come after the law takes effect Aug. 1.