Arkansas Supreme Court reverses decision to put LEARNS Act on pause

by Steve Brawner ([email protected]) 1,545 views 

The Arkansas Supreme Court ended a restraining order against the LEARNS Act, Gov. Sarah Sanders’ signature education law, but the case will continue to be litigated.

In a 5-2 vote with four concurring opinions, the Arkansas Supreme Court on Thursday (June 15) reversed and vacated a temporary restraining order against the LEARNS Act and remanded the case back to the court that issued the order.

The decision allows the state Department of Education to begin implementing Gov. Sarah Sanders’ education reform law but does not close the case.

Instead, it goes back to Pulaski County Circuit Court Judge Herbert Wright. A hearing on the case is scheduled for June 20.

In her majority opinion issued June 15, Justice Courtney Hudson wrote that the justices were not deciding the merits of the case. Instead, the majority opinion focused on the plaintiffs failing to demonstrate they would suffer irreparable harm without the restraining order.

Ali Noland, the attorney for the original plaintiffs, said the case will continue.

“While the Plaintiffs are understandably frustrated that today’s ruling diminishes the severity of the harm caused by the State’s unconstitutional actions, the Plaintiffs remain confident that they will prevail in the end,” she said in a written statement.

Sanders released a statement saying, ”Today’s Supreme Court decision is a huge win for parents, teachers, and most importantly – our kids. I’ve spoken with Education Secretary [Jacob] Oliva – he is immediately getting back to implementing the boldest, most transformational education reform in the country. For those playing political games with our children’s future, we will fight, and we will win.”

The case was brought by residents of the Marvell-Elaine School District and education advocates. The State Board of Education had voted to direct Oliva to place the district under the management of the nonprofit Friendship Education Foundation through a transformation contract made possible by the LEARNS Act.

The plaintiffs had sued saying lawmakers had erred in voting on the bill and its emergency clause at the same time. The Arkansas Constitution says the votes on the two are to be separate. The votes were recorded separately by the House and Senate clerks.

The plaintiffs said the State Board of Education had not yet had the authority to create the contract because the law’s emergency clause was not valid. Plaintiffs also said legislators had failed to establish an emergency in the part of the law related to the transformation contracts, and that the emergency clause was invalid because it declared an emergency only in some provisions of the act.

Wright had determined that the plaintiffs had a likelihood of success and granted a temporary restraining order that was to be in place until the hearing could be held June 20.

The original plaintiffs had said they they would suffer irreparable harm without the order for a number of reasons. They said the district would make two $25,000 payments to the Friendship Education Foundation in May and June, that they and other residents of the district had not had time to provide feedback about the contact, and that the district was in danger of being consolidated, dissolved or divided. The district also had issued letters to all personnel under one-year contracts informing them their contracts were not being renewed, and they would have to apply for jobs at the transformation campus.

In addition, Citizens for Arkansas Public Education and Students, or CAPES, a group seeking a ballot referendum to overturn the act, said the validity of the emergency clause would affect their ability to gather signatures for the referendum to appear on the ballot.

Justice Hudson wrote that the court has repeatedly held that harm is only considered to be irreparable when it cannot be compensated through monetary damages or redressed in court. The expenditures of funds under the transformation contract are monetary and not irreparable, she wrote. Harm from the nonrenewal of contracts can be compensated by monetary damages or redressed in court. She wrote that the fear that the district would be consolidated is speculative. The original plaintiffs did not cite any authority that gives them the right to provide feedback on the contract, she wrote. Finally, CAPES would be able to pursue its referendum effort without the restraining order.

The Supreme Court heard the case as a result of an appeal filed by Attorney General Tim Griffin following the issuance of the temporary restraining order.

Griffin’s office released a statement where he said, “This morning, the Arkansas Supreme Court reversed Pulaski County Circuit Court Judge Herbert Wright’s restraining order blocking LEARNS. This is a win for Arkansas’s children, their parents and teachers. Marvell-Elaine will be able to welcome back students next year. And the Arkansas Department of Education can immediately resume planning to provide teachers higher salaries and maternity leave, make schools safer for our children, and enable the most vulnerable children to obtain the education they deserve.”

Among the concurring opinions, Justice Karen Baker, who is seeking the office of Chief Justice in 2024, cited the state of Arkansas’ “sovereign immunity,” saying the state cannot be sued in one of its own courts.

Justice Rhonda Wood, who is also seeking the Chief Justice post next year, said the original plaintiffs are unlikely to succeed on the merits of their claims. She said the court cannot decide whether or not the Legislature violated the Constitution in passing the emergency clause because that’s a political question, and the Constitution gives the House and Senate the authority to determine their own rules and procedures. She said eight other states had come to the same conclusion with regard to courts interfering with legislative procedures.

She also wrote that the emergency clause could be defended as being necessary because the reforms needed to be implemented before the 2023-24 school year.

Justice Shawn Womack, a former state legislator, agreed in his concurring opinion that the original plaintiffs “have no chance of succeeding on the merits” because of sovereign immunity, and because the official journals recorded the votes separately.

“Nothing in our constitution prohibits the House and Senate from conducting simultaneous votes and adopting their own internal processes,” he wrote. “To the contrary, the constitution explicitly provides that ‘[e]ach house shall have the power to determine the rules of its proceedings[,] … [and] [e]ach house shall keep a journal of its proceedings.’”

Justice Barbara Webb also concurred.

Chief Justice Dan Kemp dissented, saying Wright had not abused his discretion in granting the temporary restraining order and that the original plaintiffs have demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits. He wrote that the court did not abuse its discretion in determining that the original plaintiffs would suffer irreparable harm.

Justice Robin Wynne joined in the dissent.

In her statement, Noland said that the court’s ruling does not prevent her side from prevailing on the lawsuit’s merits.

“The Arkansas Supreme Court did not rule on the merits of Plaintiffs’ lawsuit and did not hold that the emergency clause in the LEARNS Act is valid or that the LEARNS Act is currently law,” she said. “The Court also did not rule that the Plaintiffs’ lawsuit is barred by sovereign immunity or the political-question doctrine, despite asking the parties to brief both issues. Therefore, today’s ruling does not impact the Plaintiffs’ ability to prevail on the merits of their case at the final hearing on Tuesday.”

You can read the court’s full decision at this link.