The Arkansas Supreme Court ruled Thursday (Sept. 17) that a proposed initiated act to overturn a state law expanding optometric procedures does not qualify for the November ballot.
The measure would have overturned Act 579 of 2019, which permitted optometrists to perform limited eye surgeries.
Safe Surgery Arkansas (SSA), which was supported by the state’s ophthalmologists, is the group that was pushing to overturn Act 579. Arkansans for Healthy Eyes, a group led by optometrists, had challenged the ballot initiative.
Writing for the majority opinion, Chief Justice Dan Kemp agreed with a Special Master finding that supporters of the proposal did not properly follow the law in soliciting signatures from citizens for its petitions. Consistent with a previous ruling over the same subject matter, the court said:
“… a sponsor is required both to obtain a criminal record search on each paid canvasser and to certify to the Secretary of State that each paid canvasser passed the criminal background check. Simply acquiring or obtaining a background check is not sufficient under the plain language of the statute.”
Ballot initiative supporters have contended that a group can only “obtain” criminal background checks and the process of “passing” a background check is not clearly defined.
Two weeks ago, the Arkansas Supreme Court tossed two ballot initiatives that would have enacted constitutional amendments creating a legislative redistricting commission and a system of open primaries and ranked choice voting for the same reasons.
The court did not consider other challenges raised during the legal process involving Act 579.
“Because we grant the petition in part based on SSA’s failure to certify that its paid canvassers had passed background checks, petitioners cannot proceed with their remaining challenges to the initiative process, and any ruling on petitioners’ remaining claims would be strictly advisory,” Kemp said in his opinion.
Justice Jo Hart dissented.
“We are pleased the Court agrees with the Special Master’s findings that the group opposing Act 579 did NOT follow petition requirements and the measure does NOT qualify for the ballot,” said Vicki Farmer, chairperson for Arkansans for Healthy Eyes and executive director of the Arkansas Optometric Association. “Patients across Arkansas will now have improved access to quality eye care from the doctor of optometry they know and trust.”
While the ballot initiative for this cycle appears over, Safe Surgery Arkansas’ chair said that they still plan to challenge the law.
“An overwhelming majority of Arkansans agree that surgery should be performed by surgeons, and it’s a shame that voters will not have the opportunity to express themselves at the ballot on this critically important health issue,” said Dr. Laurie Barber, an ophthalmologist and chair of Safe Surgery Arkansas. “Despite today’s ruling, we are not at all finished fighting for patient safety. It’s too important, and it matters to too many Arkansans.”