OPINION | RODNEY HARRIS: State of crisis

Officials must follow Constitution

The Arkansas state motto, "Regnat Populus," translates to "The People Rule." We are about to find out if this motto has meaning.

The state faces a constitutional crisis between the governor and the Arkansas Board of Corrections. The outcome of this crisis will determine if the will of the people, as enacted in the Constitution, matters, or if the General Assembly can override provisions of the Constitution. While the ongoing battle makes for riveting political theater, the showmanship blurs the fundamental issue concerning Amendment 33 to the state Constitution.

This battle is not about conservative or liberal politics; it's not about a Donald Trump or Joe Biden approach, nor is the battle about the governor auditioning to be the next vice president, as some have speculated. The issue is about the rule of law. We cannot follow the Constitution when it aligns with our political agenda and ignore it when it confounds our agenda. The voters of Arkansas, the people, spoke to this issue when they adopted Amendment 33.

What is Amendment 33, and why does it matter? Amendment 33 is an initiated constitutional amendment, one proposed and adopted by a majority of voters as a change to the 1874 Constitution. The heavy-handed actions of Gov. Homer Adkins propelled this change.

While running for governor in 1940, Adkins was angered by his treatment at the hands of the Northwest Arkansas Times and the paper's publisher, Roberta Fulbright. Fulbright opposed Adkins and supported Gov. Carl Bailey. Fulbright's son, J. William Fulbright, was the president of the University of Arkansas. President Fulbright was a rising star as the youngest university president in the country. When Adkins defeated Bailey, he used his position to have President Fulbright fired in retaliation for Roberta Fulbright's editorial positions.

This gross misuse of political power angered many and led to a people-driven initiative resulting in Amendment 33.

The people's will was clear; they approved limits on the ability of the governor to use the office to punish political enemies or use undue pressure to achieve their political goals. The people embraced the concept that the people rule, not momentary officeholders.

Officeholders should answer to the people, but this is not the case in a one-party state. Today, Arkansas is as much a one-party state as it was in the days of Homer Adkins. The party label has changed, but Arkansas remains a one-party state with little accountability.

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders ran on the promise to address the state's crime problem and the lack of prison space. Once in office, she sought to carry out this promise and directed her administration to increase the number of prison beds and even explore the construction of new prisons. This effort was unnecessarily complicated by the General Assembly enacting a law titled the Protect Arkansas Act, giving the governor control over prisons despite the constitutional amendment granting such powers to the state Board of Corrections.

Despite what some elected and former elected officials contend, the Constitution binds officials.

No elected official wants to be in this position, but the facts are clear. The law passed by the General Assembly is unconstitutional. At this point, the courts have sided with the people and the Board of Corrections. The people must prevail in this battle, meaning the actions of the Legislature and, therefore, the governor, are unconstitutional.

The governor must find a way within the bounds of the Constitution to open more prison beds and address other issues with the state's corrections system. This may require a special session and the appropriation of additional revenue.

I don't envy the governor; her task is not easy, but she can look to the leadership style of her father and others, such as Governors Mike Beebe and Asa Hutchinson, to find a workable solution. Arkansas has been blessed with a succession of governors, including the present governor's father, Mike Huckabee, who have been willing to set aside partisan politics and tackle complex issues in a way that served the people of Arkansas.

This pattern should continue.

Rodney Harris is a former Republican nominee for state representative who holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville and specializes in political history. His dissertation "Arkansas' Divided Democracy: The Making of the Constitution of 1874" examines the Arkansas Constitution and the ideology of the men who wrote it. He also serves as a trustee of the Arkansas Historical Association.

Upcoming Events