Federal judge dismisses complaint over Arkansas voter referendums after AG’s surprising turn

by Wesley Brown ([email protected]) 504 views 

U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker on Thursday (May 24) dismissed a complaint by Little Rock petitioners looking to force Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge to take the stand and clarify her office’s repeated rejections of proposed constitutional amendments ahead of the upcoming fall elections.

In a brief hearing that lasted only a few minutes, Baker dismissed the federal complaint by the Committee to Restore Arkansans’ Rights after the plaintiff’s attorney, Alex Gray, and the Attorney General’s office informally agreed to drop the case following a flurry of legal maneuverings on the previous day.

After the hearing at the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas in downtown Little Rock, Gray said his law firm decided to halt the case after Rutledge unexpectedly announced late Wednesday evening that she was certifying four ballot proposals, including two proposals to authorize casino gaming in Arkansas.

Rutledge’s hasty decision came after the Arkansas Supreme Court granted Little Rock attorney David Couch’s petition for a mandatory injunction against the AG’s office to either approve or certify one of the versions of the ballot proposal to raise the minimum wage, or substitute and certify a more “suitable and correct” version within three days.

“We were scheduled to have a hearing this morning on the constitutional challenge to the statute where the attorney general is rejecting all the proposed constitutional amendments. Yesterday, there were a series of constitutional amendments that were approved and certified with ours’ being one – so we are now going to focus our attention on getting the signatures and getting this on the ballot,” said Gray.

Gray said his group now will scramble to gather the 84,859 signatures necessary to put the measure before Arkansas voters during the November general election after Rutledge rejected six different casino gambling proposals brought before the Attorney General’s office since early 2016.

Under the state constitution, petitioners would need to collect valid signatures from registered voters and file the proposal with the Secretary of State no later than July 6. At the same time, petition collectors would also be required to publish the proposed initiated act in a newspaper of general statewide circulation no later than June 6.

“It’s going to be tough, but we are going to do everything we can,” Gray said after the federal court hearing. “We missed out on some crucial days to gather signatures, but we are where we are and we are not looking back.”

In late March, the AG’s office rejected the Driving Arkansas Forward group’s third proposal to allow for four casinos across the state. According to Gray, the Arkansas Casino Gaming Amendment of 2018 would authorize two new casinos – one in Jefferson County and one in Pope County – while enhancing the gaming operations at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs and Southland Park Gaming and Racing in West Memphis.

He said the bulk of tax revenue from casino gaming under the proposed constitutional amendment would go for highway needs statewide, as well as in the counties and cities where the casinos are located.

“We want to give the voters of Arkansas an opportunity to vote on a fair, merit-based casino amendment,” said the Little Rock attorney. “The state is losing millions of dollars out of state and people are going to Missouri, Oklahoma, Mississippi and Louisiana, and so Arkansans at least deserve the right to decide if they want casinos in the state.”

Late Wednesday, Rutledge’s office also approved a proposed initiated act to increase the state’s minimum wage law and another to revise the legislative redistricting process. However, she rejected a proposal that would legalize marijuana, saying it had “insufficiencies and fundamental flaws” in the text of the measure.

Couch, the same petitioner who successfully led the effort to put Amendment 98 to legalize medical marijuana on the ballot in 2016, filed his complaint seeking a mandatory injunction nearly a week ago asking the state’s high court for an expedited decision so that organizers can get the minimum wage proposal on the November ballot.

Like Gray’s casino proposal, petitioners hoping to raise the Arkansas minimum wage from $8.50 to $12 an hour by Jan. 1, 2022, would need to collect 67,887 signatures of registered voters and file the proposal with the Secretary of State no later than July 6. At the same time, petition collectors would also be required to publish the proposed initiated act in a newspaper of general statewide circulation no later than June 6, if the measure is to be placed on the November ballot.

Asked about his concerns in circuit and federal court on the merits of whether Arkansas Code Ann. 7-9-107 violates the U.S. and Arkansas constitutions, and if the AG’s office is properly applying the statute in the repeated rejection of proposed initiated acts, Gray said it is an issue that will eventually need to be cleaned up.

“Those concerns are still there, however, we do have an amendment that has been approved and certified, so we are going to focus on moving forward as opposed to what has transpired over the last 4-1/2 months,” he said.

Rutledge also raised those same constitutional concerns about the ballot proposals put before Arkansas voters. Over the last week, she blamed the Arkansas Supreme Court and General Assembly for failing to clarify the ballot measure process.