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Both sides submit arguments on order blocking LEARNS Act

State wants law put back in force by Neal Earley | June 7, 2023 at 7:37 a.m.
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Lawyers in the LEARNS Act lawsuit submitted their written arguments to the Arkansas Supreme Court on Tuesday on whether the court should uphold a lower court order blocking the state from enforcing the education law.

The law has been in limbo since Pulaski County Circuit Court Judge Herbert Wright on May 26 ruled that the Legislature, when it passed the law, failed to take a separate vote on an emergency clause that would have allowed it to take effect immediately.

State Attorney General Tim Griffin quickly appealed to the state Supreme Court.

In its brief filed Tuesday, Griffin's office said if the Supreme Court were to uphold the lower court's order, many critical state laws -- including the budget -- that were passed with emergency clauses could be overturned, throwing the state into chaos. The attorney general's office also argued education policy is a political matter that should be left to the state Legislature, not the court.

"So this Court should reject Plaintiffs' effort to overrule a century of precedent, radically redefine roll-call votes, invalidate decades of emergency clauses, undermine the separation of powers, and sow chaos," according to the brief submitted from the attorney general's office. "Instead, it should immediately end the pointless confusion created by the circuit court's order and dismiss this case, so that teachers, tutors, coaches, and local administrators from Marvell-Elaine to Prairie Grove can get back to the work of educating the next generation of Arkansans."

The lawsuit was filed in May days after the state Department of Education approved a contract allowing the Friendship Education Foundation, a Washington, D.C.,-based charter school nonprofit, to take control of the Marvell-Elaine School District.

The state Board of Education used a provision of the LEARNS Act to execute the contract with the Friendship Education Foundation, which prompted the lawsuit. The complaint argues the Legislature did not follow the Arkansas Constitution when approving the LEARNS Act's emergency clause, which requires a separate vote.

The lawsuit cites Article 5, Section 1 of the Arkansas Constitution which states the Legislature "shall vote upon separate roll call" to approve an emergency clause. Without an emergency clause, laws do not take effect until 91 days after the legislative session ends.

In her brief, Ali Noland, attorney for the plaintiffs argued a plain reading of the state Constitution means lawmakers cannot hold a separate vote simultaneously. "Language of a constitutional provision that is plain and unambiguous must be given its obvious and common meaning," she wrote.

The attorney general's office contended lawmakers followed a normal procedure used for decades, where votes are recorded separately in the official journal even if lawmakers only voted once.

During the vote for the LEARNS Act, House Speaker Matthew Shepherd and Lt. Gov. Leslie Rutledge, who presides over the Senate, told members of their respective chambers their single vote was for the LEARNS Act and the emergency clause, a routine practice the General Assembly has used for decades. The attorney general's office argued the court should "consider longstanding practice" when weighing its decision.

The lawsuit also could have larger implications, as two of the plaintiffs, Steve Grappe and Veronica McClane, are trying to get a referendum on the LEARNS Act on the ballot. If successful in getting their petition approved, the law would be "held in abeyance," and would not take effect until after a potential November 2024 referendum.

"Additionally, the emergency clause requirements in Article 5, Section 1 are not just technicalities," Noland wrote in her brief. "They are meaningful restriction on the power of the legislature to bypass the referendum process and impose a new law without allowing the public at least ninety days to attempt to repeal it via referendum petition."

Noland also argued the LEARNS Act's emergency clause "is invalid because it does not state an emergency," and that the emergency clause only applies to certain parts of the bill. The attorney general's office claimed the emergency clause was necessary so the state could begin implementing the law's various programs such as updated school security guidelines and a voucher program that will prioritize disabled and foster care students.

LEARNS stands for literacy, empowerment, accountability, readiness, networking and safety.

On Friday, the Supreme Court ruled 4-3 that Wright's order blocking the LEARNS Act could stand until it decides on Griffin's appeal.

Tuesday was the deadline set by the court for both sides to submit briefs. It asked the attorneys to address the question of "sovereign immunity," or whether the state can be sued. The attorney general's office argued the state has sovereign immunity as the "Plaintiffs' lawsuit would prevent officials from implementing State law." The plaintiffs could only get an exception for sovereign immunity if it is "against ongoing illegal conduct," the attorney general's office argued.

Noland wrote the Supreme Court cannot consider the sovereign immunity question as the lower court did not issue a ruling on the matter in its order on May 26. Noland also argued the lawsuit is covered by "several well-established exceptions," to sovereign immunity.

Each side will have an opportunity to reply to the other's brief. Their arguments are due by today at 9 a.m.

Print Headline: Justices consider LEARNS suit briefs


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