Arkansas Supreme Court reverses ruling that vote on LEARNS Act’s emergency clause failed to follow state’s constitution

FILE — The Arkansas State Supreme Court building is shown in this undated file photo.

The Arkansas Supreme Court on Thursday reversed and dismissed a Pulaski County circuit judge’s ruling that the Arkansas General Assembly failed to follow the Arkansas Constitution in passing an emergency clause as part of Gov. Sarah Huckabee’s signature education law, the LEARNS Act.

On June 30, Pulaski County Circuit Judge Herbert Wright ruled the emergency clause contained in Act 237 of 2023 did not receive a separate roll-call vote as required by the Arkansas Constitution, rendering the emergency clause procedurally invalid, and parts of the law would take effect Aug. 1 rather than March 8 when the governor signed the law.

The lawsuit was brought by a group of Phillips County residents and two public education activists who sought to delay implementation of the LEARNS Act, arguing the law’s emergency clause was not passed in accordance with the state’s constitution.

Attorney General Tim Griffin appealed Wright’s ruling to the state Supreme Court.

“Today’s Supreme Court ruling in favor of the LEARNS Act is a historic victory for Arkansas parents, teachers, and students, and a crushing defeat for the partisan extremists who tried to undermine our kids’ futures," Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement. "My administration will continue to implement our transformational reforms which empower parents to choose the best school for their family, prohibit indoctrination, raise teacher pay from one of the lowest to one of the best in the nation, and invest in pre-K, early literacy, and career and technical education so every Arkansan can find a good job in their community.”

In the court’s majority opinion, Justice Barbara Webb said “we agree with appellees that, given the timing of this appeal, our decision would have no effect on the underlying controversy in this case — the effective date of the LEARNS Act.”

But the court may review issues on appeal if a recognized exception to the mootness doctrine applies, and one such exception is for matters involving a substantial public interest that are likely to be litigated in the future, she wrote.

“The present matter falls squarely within this exception because it calls into question the decades-long process of the House and Senate for voting on emergency clauses,” Webb said.

At issue is whether the General Assembly complied with Article 5, Section 1 of the Arkansas Constitution when it enacted the LEARNS Act emergency clause, she said.

Webb said the court reaffirms a precedent in a 1918 ruling and “conclude that the plain language of the constitution designate the journal of each chamber as the official record of the General Assembly’s votes.

“In this instance, the legislative journals reflect that the LEARNS Act and its emergency clause were adopted by separate votes,” she said. “The House Journal indicates a separate roll call and vote for the emergency clause. Likewise, the Senate Journal indicates a separate roll call and vote for the emergency clause. Thus, according to the official record, the emergency clause was passed in compliance with article 5, section 1 of the Arkansas Constitution.

“In reaching the opposite conclusion, the circuit court ignored the face of the record and instead relied on parol evidence — video recordings of House and Senate proceedings — to find that the General Assembly’s process for adopting emergency clauses is constitutionally infirm. … [T]he journals are the official record and it was erroneous for the circuit court to look to parol evidence in reaching its decision,” Webb wrote.

In his dissenting opinion, Chief Justice Dan Kemp said the court “now renders an advisory opinion on the Act’s emergency clause.

“In my view, the public interest exception does not apply because any future litigation on emergency clauses is speculative,” he wrote. “Therefore, I would dismiss the appeal as moot.”

Ali Noland, an attorney for the group that brought the lawsuit challenging the LEARNS Act emergency clause, said Thursday that “Today’s Arkansas Supreme Court ruling makes it much harder for Arkansans to hold their government accountable for willfully violating the Arkansas Constitution

“Despite the fact that this lawsuit has now been moot for more than two months, the Arkansas Supreme Court still chose to wade into the issue in order to make clear that, no matter how blatantly [the] Arkansas legislature violates the Arkansas Constitution, our courts will now be required to look the other way,” she said in a written statement.

Griffin described Thursday's ruling as a "win for the people of Arkansas."

"The Arkansas Supreme Court confirmed that the General Assembly’s long-established procedure for adopting emergency clauses is valid and not subject to challenge," Griffin said in a news release. "This ruling dismisses the lawsuit challenging LEARNS and confirms that all similar challenges fail as a matter of law and must be thrown out."