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OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: Don’t celebrate yet

by John Brummett | June 6, 2023 at 3:30 a.m.

In Round One at the Arkansas Supreme Court, the state Constitution edged Gov. Sarah Sanders by a vote of 4-to-3.

Some called it an upset. Others called it a great victory for the balance of power and an overdue comeuppance for the Trumpian tyrant in the governor's office.

What it was ... was Round One.

It was not a definitive judgment on the issue, which is whether the state Constitution's plain requirement of separate votes on emergency clauses on legislation means the governor's new education tome is not yet in effect.

If it's not, then the troubled Marvell-Elaine school district is not yet under the rule of a charter-school management company. If it's not, those wanting to circulate petitions to try to get voter repeal of the new law on the ballot will have more time.

In voting 4-to-3 to keep in place for the moment Pulaski Circuit Judge Herbert Wright's temporary restraining order against the law's effectiveness, the four prevailing judges agreed to expedite a final disposition, perhaps to be made this week, after briefs get filed Tuesday.

So, the public school defenders and Sanders resisters who celebrate Friday's 4-3 conceivably could be in a foul mood again soon enough. All it would take would be for one of the four justices to be persuaded by some argument from the attorney general, unlikely though that might seem. Arguing against constitutional wording is difficult, or ought to be.

By expediting the final judgment, the court seems to be saying that quicker is better because the Legislature might want to come back in session right away to pass a separate emergency clause so that Sanders could get right back to taking public schools' names and kicking their behinds.

That's unless the final judgment goes on to say that the Marvell-Elaine plaintiffs, through their lawyer Ali Noland of Little Rock, are right not only about the plain constitutional language on a separate vote, but in the argument that the emergency clause on the so-called LEARNS act is invalid because there is no real emergency established in the text.

As late as a couple of decades ago, the Legislature didn't pass so many emergency clauses, and, if so, used separate votes. Since that time, emergency clauses have become more common, as has the process by which the House Speaker says by rote custom, "Prepare the machines, Mr. Clerk. Remember you're voting on the bill and the emergency clause."

One idea of the new willy-nilly lathering of emergency clauses is to constrain citizens who might want to circulate petitions to refer new laws to the people before they take effect. Another is for the power-crazed new ruling Republican majorities to get not only everything they want, but all of it as soon as they can.

These modern Republican legislators clearly don't care for citizens sticking their noses into government. They continue session after session to make it harder for regular people to get matters on the ballot.

Meantime, for now, if but for days, we live under a temporary restraining order staying the effectiveness of LEARNS.

Late last week, I got a congratulatory call from a couple of people saying I'd called the Supreme Court vote the Monday before in a regular weekly video chat with "Talk Business and Politics." That was sort of right.

What I'd said was that three Supreme Court justices were nothing more than Republican legislative votes who would certainly vote the way Sanders wanted. I meant Shawn Womack, formerly a hyperpartisan GOP state legislator; Barbara Webb, wed to longtime state GOP chairman Doyle Webb, and Rhonda Wood, who owes her ascension to the court largely to favors from Mike Huckabee and later-discredited Gilbert Baker, and who now wants to be the next chief justice.

But I was not remotely confident about the other four--Chief Justice Dan Kemp and Justices Robin Wynne, Karen Baker and Courtney Hudson. I worry about them still on the final disposition.

To be clear, there is no great likelihood from any of this that the governor's law won't take effect inevitably and bedevil teachers, public schools and communities. But there are a couple of potential advantages in a delay of the law's effectiveness, one for the Marvell plaintiffs who don't want charter management and the other for those wanting to repeal the new law.

It also would be nice if the state Constitution was heeded.

And, yes, it's been such a bad time for public-school defenders and Sanders resisters that it might do them a world of good to cop a few-week victory. Some probably have champagne on ice and their hands on the cork.

John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

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