LITTLE ROCK — A group on Wednesday proposed a ballot measure that would allow the Arkansas Legislature to scale back the state’s immunity from lawsuits, hoping to reverse a ruling from the state’s highest court that critics say gives state agencies blanket protections from any legal challenges.
The Committee to Restore Arkansans’ Rights announced it had filed a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow the Legislature to waive the state’s sovereign immunity. The attorney general must approve the language of the measure before the committee can begin gathering signatures to place it on the November ballot. The group must submit nearly 85,000 signatures from registered voters by July 6 to qualify for the ballot.
The proposal comes less than a week after justices ruled a 2006 measure allowing lawsuits against the state for violating its minimum wage law conflicted with the Arkansas constitution’s granting of sovereign immunity from suits. Two justices on the court said in a dissenting opinion the move would give the state “king-like” protections and affect a broad range of cases, including Freedom of Information and whistleblower suits.
“The potential implications of the court’s decision are far-reaching,” the group said in a statement. “Arkansas citizens no longer have an avenue in state court to challenge a broad array of state laws or regulations.”
Alex Gray, an attorney for the group, said he expected a broad coalition that would be affected by the ruling to support the ballot initiative. Gray said the effort began after his firm was approached by groups and individuals concerned about the ruling, but declined to name them. Gray said the proposal wasn’t a criticism of the court’s decision.
The high court’s ruling has already been raised in several other cases around the state and prompted a Pulaski County judge this week to toss out a case challenging a ruling by the state Oil and Gas Commission.
Attorneys for the state Supreme Court on Tuesday also cited the ruling as they asked a federal court to dismiss the lawsuit by a state judge who was disqualified from handling execution cases over his participation in an anti-death penalty demonstration. Attorneys for the high court said it should be dismissed from a part of Judge Wendell Griffen’s lawsuit that claims the disqualification violated a 2015 state religious objections law.
Griffen’s attorney criticized the court, saying it was trying to benefit from its own ruling. Justices in April barred Griffen from hearing execution cases after he was photographed lying down on a cot outside the governor’s mansion the same day he blocked Arkansas from using a lethal injection drug over claims that the state misled a medical supply company. Griffen has said he was portraying Jesus and participating in a prayer vigil.
“It is now clear: the Arkansas Supreme Court has upended 20 years of legal precedence in order to immunize itself and the Justices from Judge Griffen’s legitimate civil rights lawsuit … Ultimately, they will not succeed, but this is beyond the pale nonetheless,” Mike Laux, Griffen’s attorney, said Wednesday.