Original judge in LEARNS Act lawsuit recuses; Rudofsky tabbed to hear challenge over AP Black history course

Lee Rudofsky is shown in this file photo.
Lee Rudofsky is shown in this file photo.

U.S. District Judge Lee Rudofsky has been assigned to preside over a lawsuit challenging the LEARNS Act after the previous judge recused herself from the case on Tuesday.

Chief U.S. District Judge Kristine G. Baker was originally assigned the case, which was filed in the Eastern District of Arkansas on Monday.

"To avoid the appearance of impropriety, Judge Baker recuses from this case, and the case should be reassigned," an order of reassignment written by Tracy M. Washington, courtroom deputy to Baker, states.

How Baker's role overseeing the case might create an appearance of impropriety isn't stated in the order.

The lawsuit challenges the constitutionality of the LEARNS Act and seeks to temporarily halt its implementation.

Plaintiffs in the case include Ruthie Walls, who teaches AP African American Studies at Little Rock Central High School. The other plaintiffs are students enrolled in her class along with their parents: Sadie Annabella and Jennifer Reynolds, and Gisele and Chandra Williams Davis. They are represented by Laux Law Group and Porter Law Firm.

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who championed Act 237 of 2023, commonly known as the LEARNS Act, and signed the bill into law last March, is a defendant in the case. State Department of Education Secretary Jacob Oliva is listed as the other defendant. They are represented in the case by Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin's office.

Rudofsky was appointed to the federal bench in 2019 by former President Donald Trump.

Regarding the case's reassignment, attorney Michael J. Laux of Laux Law Group said in an email, "We respect Judge Rudofsky and look forward to bringing this important case before him."

Griffin praised the education overhaul in a statement, but didn't comment directly on Rudofsky's assignment to the case.

"The LEARNS Act has brought much-needed reforms to Arkansas," Griffin said in the statement, which was provided by Jeff LeMaster, spokesman for the attorney general's office. "I have successfully defended it from challenges before, and I am prepared to vigorously defend it again."

The plaintiffs' complaint largely focuses on rules the Education Department cited when it removed AP African American Studies from its course code catalog last August. The national College Board that is producing the course released a revised framework for the course in December, and the class is included in the state's 2024-2025 course code catalog.

Shortly after the course was removed last year, Oliva defended the action by saying it didn't meet "rules that have long been in place." A statement emailed by the agency earlier that day said "the department encourages the teaching of all American history and supports rigorous courses not based on opinions or indoctrination."

Sanders signed an executive order on her first day in office "to prohibit indoctrination and critical race theory in schools," and Section 16 within the LEARNS Act included codification of the order. Earlier queries about the course by the Arkansas Division of Elementary and Secondary Education in January of last year were prompted by the executive order.

The plaintiffs' complaint asserts that the LEARNS Act is unconstitutional, and that the law violates their rights under the First and 14th Amendments. Among the allegations made in the complaint is that removing the course's listing from Arkansas' course code catalog stripped the class "of its full AP status and made it ineligible for multiple benefits to which it was previously entitled."

All six schools that planned to offer the course elected to continue doing so for local credit, despite its removal from the course code catalog. The schools are Little Rock Central High School, North Little Rock High School, North Little Rock Center of Excellence, The Academies at Jonesboro High and Jacksonville High School and eStem High School.

However, the move still meant students could not use the course to meet core graduation requirements, and the state would not pay the cost of the end-of-year exam.

Among the allegations leveled against Section 16 of the LEARNS Act is that it "is a facade for content and viewpoint discrimination."

"[Defendants] cannot deny that Section 16 is viewpoint-based," the complaint states. "Not only does it remove educational resources which reflect and describe the oppressive social and political path blacks were forced to sojourn throughout American history, but it replaces these facts with self-serving 'feel good' writings provided by GOP-friendly '1776 Unites,' a 'bootstraps'-themed organization dedicated to whitewashing and sanitizing that same history by downplaying the fierce historical impediments to black equality."

The plaintiffs also argue that Section 16 is "unworkably vague and overly broad to the point that it fails to give reasonable notice of the conduct and speech it prohibits," and that it violates the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment because it "creates two different classes along racial lines" by restricting the course's curriculum but not doing the same to similar AP courses that cover the same subject matter.

As a result, the complaint states that plaintiffs suffered "physical injury, economic damages and significant emotional damages" as a result, including anxiety, fear and stigmatization.

In an emailed statement sent by governor's office spokeswoman Alexa Henning, Sanders said on Monday, "In the State of Arkansas, we will not indoctrinate our kids and teach them to hate America or each other. It's sad the radical left continues to lie and play political games with our kids' futures."

Oliva denied that students were prevented from participating in the course, or that they were stripped of the benefits offered by the course, calling such claims "a total lie."

"The department advised schools they could offer local course credit to students who complete the pilot, and six schools participated," he said in an email sent Monday by an Education Department spokeswoman. "After discussions, College Board updated course framework and assured it does not violate Arkansas law. The department approved the course for the 24-25 school year and will continue to work with districts to ensure courses offered to students do not violate Arkansas state law."

The national College Board that developed the course has denied that the course indoctrinates students. In a statement released shortly after the class was removed from code listings, the organization said it shared educators' "surprise, confusion, and disappointment at this new guidance that the course won't count toward graduation credits or be weighted the same as other AP courses offered in the state."

Arkansas is among at least 17 states that have approved rules limiting the discussion of race and sex in educational settings, according to a map and guide produced by Education Week. Complaints filed in at least four lawsuits argue such measures are "unconstitutionally vague" and that they leave educators uncertain about what material is and isn't allowable.

In October, the Arkansas Supreme Court reversed and dismissed a judge's ruling in an earlier case over the LEARNS Act. Pulaski County Circuit Judge Herbert Wright had ruled on June 30 that the emergency clause contained in the law didn't receive a separate roll-call vote as required by the state Constitution, rendering the clause procedurally invalid, and parts of the law would take effect Aug. 1 rather than March 8 when the governor signed the law. Griffin appealed Wright's ruling to the state Supreme Court.

In the court's majority opinion, Justice Barbara Webb wrote, "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."

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