Judge issues temporary restraining order on LEARNS Act; AG appeals

by Roby Brock ([email protected]) 1,081 views 

A Pulaski County judge issued a temporary restraining order late Friday (May 26) on the LEARNS Act, Gov. Sarah Sanders’ signature education bill, which is being litigated over whether or not the state legislature properly followed the Arkansas Constitution in voting on an emergency clause for the omnibus law.

The plaintiffs argue both chambers of the General Assembly did not hold separate votes on the bill and the emergency clause. They contend the state constitution calls for separate votes, citing Article 5, Section 1, which says the chambers “shall vote upon separate roll call” and “state the fact which constitutes such emergency.”

In issuing a temporary restraining order, Judge Herb Wright determined that the plaintiffs in the case have a chance to succeed on the merits of their claim (see notes from his ruling at the bottom of this story). His order is only extended through June 20, 2023, when a court hearing is scheduled.

A spokesperson for Sanders, Alexa Henning, said the state plans to immediately appeal. Shortly after the order was issued on Friday, Attorney General Tim Griffin’s office filed its motion to appeal.

“As I’ve said, this is an absurd lawsuit with zero merit, and we will file an appeal immediately. It is sad that the radical left is playing political games with children’s futures,” Henning said.

Ali Noland, the attorney representing the plaintiffs, provided this statement to Talk Business & Politics.

“I am thankful that Arkansas still has three independent branches of government and that the judicial branch still follows the Arkansas Constitution, even if the legislature does not. Today’s ruling sent a clear message that neither the Arkansas General Assembly nor Governor Sarah Sanders are above the law,” she said.

“Judge Wright’s order vindicates my clients, who have been disparaged in the press and have been the target of misinformation by the State. As is clear from today’s ruling, these MESD [Marvell-Elaine School District] parents, educators, and residents are simply trying to protect the district and do what is best for their children,” Noland said.

The original court challenge was made on May 8 from a group of Marvell parents opposed to the State Board of Education’s move to enter into a ‘transformation contract’ to resolve the Marvell-Elaine school district’s failings.

A ballot question committee seeking to overturn the new law through the referendum process, Citizens For Arkansas Public Education And Students (CAPES), is also a plaintiff. Defendants include the Arkansas Department of Education, Education Secretary Jacob Oliva, all members of the State Board of Education, the Marvell-Elaine School District, and the Friendship Education Foundation, a charter school management company.

The lawsuit alleges the Arkansas General Assembly did not follow the state constitution in voting separately for an emergency clause that allowed the LEARNS Act to go into law upon the governor’s signature. The filing, which was made in Pulaski County circuit court, also questions if an emergency clause is even necessary for the measure.

Some specific language from the judge’s order noted:

“Specifically, in their Second Motion, Plaintiffs bring to light new evidence that, in reliance on the ‘transformation contract’ at issue in this lawsuit, the Defendants have issued contract non-renewal notices to all licensed and unlicensed Marvell-Elaine School District Employees who are employed on one-year contracts. Plaintiffs have requested that the court temporarily enjoin the Defendants from terminating or non-renewing the employment contracts for any Marvell-Elaine School District employee based on the ‘transformation contract’ at issue in the present case.”

“Plaintiffs argue that a temporary restraining order is necessary to prevent numerous Marvell-Elaine School District employees, including two of the named Plaintiffs, from losing their jobs before this matter can be heard by the court on June 20, 2023, and decided by the court.”

“Plaintiffs have demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits, given that the emergency clause in the Arkansas LEARNS Act was not passed with the necessary separate roll-call vote that is required in Article 5, Section 1 of the Constitution of the State of Arkansas. Additionally, the Plaintiffs have demonstrated a likelihood of success on their argument that the language in section 73(a), which is the only part of the emergency clause that purports to authorize emergency enactment of the “transformation contract” provisions in the bill, cites only facts that fail to establish an emergency under Arkansas law.”

“Finally, the emergency clause in the bill unconstitutionally attempts to create numerous differing effective dates for various provisions of the bill, and the Plaintiffs have demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits of their argument that the Arkansas Constitution does not permit such a scheme.”

Saying the state Constitution’s language was “plain and unambiguous,” Judge Wright concluded, “The word ‘separate’ cannot mean ‘the same.’ In order to pass a valid and enforceable emergency clause, the Arkansas General Assembly was required by Article 5, Section 1 to hold a separate roll-call vote, and they failed to do so.”

“All of these claims hinge on the Plaintiff’s contention that the emergency clause in the Arkansas LEARNS Act, Act 237 of 2023, is invalid. The Court finds and concludes that it is,” he wrote. “Defendants are enjoined from implementing or enforcing any aspect of the Arkansas LEARNS Act, Act 237 of 2023, until such date that it becomes law.”

Attorney General Griffin filed his appeal to the Arkansas Supreme Court less than two hours after Judge Wright’s ruling. Griffin said the state’s high court has jurisdiction to settle the temporary restraining order based on the following:

“It involves issues of first impression; (b)(4) because it involves issues of substantial public interest; (b)(5) because it involves significant issues needing clarification and development of the law; and (b)(6) because it involves substantial questions concerning the validity, construction, or interpretation of an act of the General Assembly,” Griffin’s office said.

“The LEARNS Act provides students and parents new opportunities and better performing schools. It was passed in accordance with the Arkansas Constitution, is currently the law in Arkansas, and I won’t allow one erroneous decision by a circuit court judge in Little Rock to deprive the children of Arkansas of the wonderful and lawful opportunities awaiting them under the LEARNS Act. That’s why I’ve immediately appealed the Pulaski County Circuit Court’s order enjoining the LEARNS Act to the Arkansas Supreme Court,” Griffin said in a statement.

UPDATE: Speaker of the House of Representatives Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado issued the following statement Friday evening.

“While I disagree with this temporary ruling, I am pleased that the Attorney General has already appealed to the Arkansas Supreme Court. The LEARNS Act is an important and transformative law for Arkansas that as I have said before was handled consistent with long-standing Constitutional practices, which years of Republican and Democratic legislators have followed and participated in. It remains unfortunate that such is now being challenged; however, I am still confident the Constitutionality of the law and the legislative process will ultimately be upheld,” Shepherd said.