LITTLE ROCK — An Arkansas judge on Thursday disqualified a ballot measure that would limit the damages awarded in lawsuits and would give the Legislature control over court rules.
Pulaski County Circuit Judge Mackie Pierce ruled that the proposal put forward by the state’s majority-Republican Legislature would violate the state constitution by combining unrelated measures into one amendment. Pierce ordered election officials to not count or certify any votes cast on the proposal.
“Plaintiff has clearly demonstrated the four parts of Issue No. 1 are not reasonably germane to each other nor are those four parts reasonably germane to the subject (whatever that subject may be) of the amendment,” Pierce wrote in his ruling.
The amendment would cap damages at $500,000 for noneconomic losses, such as pain and psychological distress. It would cap punitive damages at $500,000 or three times the amount of compensatory damages awarded, whichever is higher. It also would cap attorneys’ contingency fees at one-third of the net amount recovered. The measure also would give the Legislature the power to change, repeal or adopt rules for the state’s courts.
The measure has the backing of business groups, including the state Chamber of Commerce, who are trying to reinstate limits that have been chipped away by past court rulings, saying they’re needed to make the state more competitive. Opponents of the measure have said the measure would subvert juries and place arbitrary limits on damages.
State officials said they planned to appeal Pierce’s order to the Arkansas Supreme Court.
“I am confident that our Supreme Court will ultimately let the people decide,” Carl Vogelphol, campaign manager for Arkansans for Jobs and Justice, the group backing the proposal.
Retired Pulaski County Circuit Judge Marion Humphrey had challenged the measure as unconstitutional.
“We appreciate the judge’s thoroughness and we’re still analyzing his very well-reasoned opinion,” Jeff Priebe, an attorney for Humphrey, said.