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Opponents in LEARNS Act case file second set of briefs with the Arkansas Supreme Court

Claims of ‘doom’ inflated, plaintiffs in lawsuit argue by Neal Earley | June 8, 2023 at 5:46 a.m.
Attorney General Tim Griffin addresses the media during a press conference in Little Rock in this Thursday, March 16, 2023 file photo. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)

Attorney General Tim Griffin's office, in filings with the Arkansas Supreme Court on Wednesday, continued to warn of dire consequences if a judge's order blocking the LEARNS Act from being implemented is allowed to stand.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit that resulted in the order, meanwhile, asked the court to take the attorney general's "inflated claims of impending chaos, disaster, doom, and destruction with a healthy dose of skepticism."

The briefs filed Wednesday were each side's only opportunity to directly counter arguments made in filings a day earlier before the Supreme Court decides whether to uphold the lower court order halting enforcement of the law.

The expansive education overhaul championed by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders has been in legal jeopardy since Pulaski County Circuit Judge Herbert Wright issued the temporary restraining order on May 26. Wright's order prompted Griffin to file an emergency appeal to the state Supreme Court.

The question at the center of the case is whether the state Legislature followed the Arkansas Constitution when it passed the emergency clause for the LEARNS Act. An emergency clause is a parliamentary procedure that allows laws to take effect immediately upon passage of a two-thirds vote.

The lawsuit argues that since the Legislature held only one vote -- for both the bill and the emergency clause -- lawmakers did not fulfill a constitutional mandate requiring "separate roll call" votes. Without an emergency clause, the legislation does not take effect until 91 days after the legislative session ends.

Griffin's office contends lawmakers followed a procedure the General Assembly has used for decades in which votes are recorded separately in the official journal even if lawmakers only voted once. In its brief Wednesday, the attorney general's office again argued the court should not play referee, saying "only the legislature -- is the master of what it records."

Ali Noland, attorney for the plaintiffs, contended that the attorney general wants the court to interpret the state Constitution's language calling for a "separate roll call" vote "in a manner incompatible with their plain and commonly accepted meanings."

In its brief filed on Tuesday, the attorney general's office said upholding Wright's ruling would "sow chaos" in state government, overturning hundreds of recent state laws -- including the budget -- that were passed with an emergency clause.

"Plaintiffs' typo-filled restraining order doesn't prevent irreparable harm; it inflicts it on students, teachers, and parents," Griffin's office argued in its brief on Wednesday. "And worse still, if upheld, its reasoning would upend settled expectations, flood the courts, shutter State government for a month, and endanger public health, safety, and welfare."

Noland countered that leaving Wright's order in place simply would mean "a temporary delay of approximately one month" for the law to take effect.

She also responded to a claim in the attorney general's brief on Tuesday that upholding Wright's ruling would jeopardize the salaries for the Supreme Court and its staff.

"Arkansas is fortunate to have a strong, independent, and unbiased judiciary that has demonstrated its commitment to upholding the rule of law and protecting the integrity of the courts," Noland wrote. "The Appellants' crude and offensive appeal to the Justices' personal financial interests in this case jeopardizes all of that."

The lawsuit dates back to a decision by the state Board of Education in May to approve a contract allowing a charter school nonprofit, the Friendship Education Foundation, to take control of the Marvell-Elaine School District in Phillips County. Since the state Board of Education used a provision of the LEARNS Act to execute the contract, the plaintiffs claim the move was unconstitutional since the law is not yet in effect.

Noland argued the state does not have immunity from the suit because it violated the law, something Wright upheld in his temporary restraining order. The attorney general's office contended the state does have sovereign immunity, asking the Supreme Court to dismiss the case outright.

The lawsuit also claims the LEARNS Act's emergency clause is invalid because it does not meet the criteria for an emergency. The attorney general's office disputed that in its brief on Wednesday, saying lawmakers were "compelled" by low literacy rates to address education reform.

The attorney general's office on Wednesday also knocked the brief Noland filed a day earlier for exceeding the court's word limit. Noland responded by saying the relevant portion of her brief only exceeded the limit by 142 words. She offered a resubmitted, slightly shorter brief.

The 145-page LEARNS Act includes higher salaries and maternity leave for teachers, a voucher program, reading coaches, updated guidelines for school safety and a ban on critical race theory, among other items.

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

The briefs filed this week come after the Supreme Court on Friday denied Griffin's emergency motion to overturn Wright's order.

In their 4-3 decision, the justices did not provide a reason for denying the motion, instead asking both sides to submit further arguments. The Supreme Court also asked attorneys to address sovereign immunity, a question as to whether the state can be sued.

Print Headline: Griffin: Block of LEARNS risks ‘chaos’


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