Late last week, Arkansas parents and kids got some highly-anticipated great news from the Arkansas Supreme Court: in a 5-2 decision, authored by Justice Courtney Goodson, the court lifted the restraining order against the LEARNS Act.
(Justices Baker, Wood, Womack, and Webb concurred in the opinion; Justices Kemp and Wynne dissented.)
You can see the full ruling here.
Although this is not the end of the legal nonsense surrounding LEARNS, there are big implications for the short term and even bigger implications for the fate of educational freedom in Arkansas. Here’s why.
Ultimately, the LEARNS Act lawsuit is about legislative process and procedures, not about the legality of the contents of the legislation. Leftist opponents have hinged their entire legal argument on this, challenging decades of legislative precedent and claiming that the bill was “unconstitutionally” passed because there were not “separate votes” on the emergency clause and the bill itself.
(Spoiler alert: There were indeed separate votes.)
Even if the plaintiffs win, they will simply be delaying the implementation of the act, not undoing the act itself. But that doesn’t mean the outcome of this case is without consequence.
The court’s ruling lifted the temporary restraining order against the implementation of the LEARNS Act. While it did not throw out the entire case against LEARNS – at least not yet – they did rule that the circuit court that paused the act’s implementation “abused its discretion” in imposing the restraining order, and the Supreme Court vacated it entirely.
They also forecasted a great deal about what they think of the merits of the underlying case, which hinges not on the merits of the underlying policy but on the procedural methods used to adopt the bill.
Here are some notable excerpts from the concurring opinions that show you exactly how unimpressed with the entire case the Supreme Court is:
From Justice Rhonda Wood:
“...Appellees argue that the emergency clause is invalid because they allege there was not a separate roll-call vote. This issue involves deciding whether the official legislative journal conflicts with video of the proceedings. The answer will depend on which is the official vote and record. But we cannot resolve this issue without exceeding our judicial role by answering a political question...The only way to decide this issue would be to pass judgment on the legislative branch’s internal procedural method of recording votes. This is not our role.”
“Accordingly, while I join the majority opinion, I would also reverse and vacate the circuit court’s temporary restraining order because appellees are unlikely to succeed on the merits of each of their claims.”
From Justice Shawn Womack:
“...In my opinion, appellees have no chance of succeeding on the merits, which is the strongest argument in favor of reversal.”
“...The journals of each chamber serve as the only official record of the General Assembly’s votes. The appellees, however, would have this court ignore this clear constitutional command.”
“The journals of both the House of Representatives and the Senate show the LEARNS Act received two separate votes: one on the substance of the bill and one on the emergency clause. As a result, the process by which the General Assembly passed the LEARNS Act was undoubtedly constitutional, and it was effective upon the various effective dates contemplated herein.”
“It seems the dissent, the circuit court, and the appellees have all confused the issue of separate votes with simultaneous votes.”
“There is simply no irreparable harm to the appellees from the LEARNS Act, and there is no likelihood of success on the merits for the appellees’ claim that the LEARNS Act’s emergency clause was unconstitutionally passed.”
Notably, Justice Barbara Webb concurred with the majority of Justice Womack's concurring opinion.
The bottom line? Even though this was a procedural ruling on the restraining order, the Supreme Court is clearly signaling their dislike for the underlying case, which is bad news for LEARNS opponents and great news for Arkansas kids and parents.
This ruling allows implementation to resume immediately. In fact, according to Governor Sarah Sanders, the state has already gotten back to work on the phase-in of the program.
This court decision is important for all of the obvious reasons – families, kids, and schools need certainty going into the upcoming school year, which is just right around the corner. But it’s also important because it will reduce the chaos and confusion related to the act, which I have contended is a core desire of LEARNS opponents. Certainty about the implementation and its timeline is good for parents and kids – and they now have it.
The case will now be remanded back to the lower circuit court. Unfortunately, this means Judge Herb Wright will be able to issue a ruling on the case and the underlying question of whether or not the legislature appropriately passed the LEARNS Act. Based on his previous ruling(s) and leftist bent, it seems safe to assume he will rule in favor of the plaintiffs and against LEARNS.
But Wright’s ruling will certainly be immediately appealed by Attorney General Tim Griffin – which means it will ultimately be right back on the Supreme Court’s desk. And, as detailed above, they seem highly unimpressed with the merits of the case.
Just for kicks and giggles, here’s what Justice Womack also had to say about the plaintiff’s attorney (Alli Noland) and her conduct surrounding this case:
Next, I would caution the primary attorneys in this case regarding their tone and tenor and would remind them that the way they litigate a case, both publicly and before this court, should reflect the professionalism that is expected of licensed attorneys. Specifically, it was wholly inappropriate for the appellees’ attorney to engage in partisan rancor by including in her brief to this court a tweet from a highly partisan blog discussing members of this court in relation to the case pending before us.
I’ve not read scores and scores of Arkansas Supreme Court opinions, but I have to to believe it’s fairly unusual for an attorney’s conduct to be called out in an official opinion like this.
As I told a crowd of fired-up conservatives on Thursday night, the LEARNS Act is here to stay. The Left’s strategy is highly transparent: they want to divide and delay. They want to sow chaos, confuse the public, and disrupt the implementation as much as possible, all so they can say “See, we told you LEARNS was a mess!” It’s akin to an arsonist blaming the firefighters for the fire they’re trying to put out.
The Left is also trying to buy time for their doomed ballot petition effort. If they can get the courts to rule in their favor and push back the effective date of LEARNS, they can buy more time to gather signatures to put it on the ballot.
But the Supreme Court has demonstrated in their latest ruling that they do not have any patience for this silly, politically-motivated lawsuit.
In fact, take it from Justice Womack himself: “There is no likelihood of success on the merits for the appellees’ claim that the LEARNS Act’s emergency clause was unconstitutionally passed.”
They, not Herb Wright, will have the final say on the LEARNS Act’s implementation timeline. And when they do, the LEARNS Act will continue moving forward – and parents will be in charge and kids will finally be put first in our education system.