Opposing sides debate proposed Issue 1 in Fayetteville

Posted: August 25, 2018 at 1:04 a.m.

FAYETTEVILLE -- Voters should examine similar measures in other states to learn how Issue 1 would change the way Arkansas courts operate, state Rep. Bob Ballinger said at a debate Friday.

The best way to learn about the proposal, former state Supreme Court Justice Paul Danielson responded, is to read it, even though it's confusing, misleading and "intentionally that way."

Ballinger, R- Hindsville, and Danielson debated the proposed amendment in front of a packed house of 200 at a lunch meeting of the Political Animals Club of Northwest Arkansas. Washington County Circuit Judge John Threet, club host, noted Friday was the first time in the group's history of more than 20 years there had been protesters outside. A group of at least 20 from a variety of places and political backgrounds stood outside Mermaids Restaurant in Fayetteville, where the club meets.

If passed, Issue 1 would give the state Legislature authority to write court rules and put caps on attorney fees and lawsuit damages.

"I don't want the Legislature setting font sizes" on court documents, said Ballinger, an attorney. But liability awards in Arkansas are excessive, which discourages the opening of medical clinics, for example, he said.

Neighboring Texas saw emergency clinics open up in 50 rural counties in the years following a similar change, he said.

Danielson said nothing in Issue 1 addresses health care and it goes very far beyond legal liability changes.

"This is a classic bait and switch," he said. "It is not limited to tort. The Legislature would set the rules for domestic relation cases, probate and criminal court."

"This is exactly what they did when the Legislature put something on the ballot and called it ethics reform," Danielson said. "We didn't get ethics reform. We got term limits changed and a salary commission set up that gave legislators a big raise."

Ballinger argued the Legislature is the policy-setting arm of the government and passed laws in 2003 to change the state's health care and litigation policy. The judiciary branch responded by cutting away those changes in court rulings over the years.

The Legislature is appealing to voters by putting Issue 1 on the Nov. 6 general election ballot.

Danielson argued the separation of powers is a constitutional principle the Legislature is attempting to violate, both in its 2003 efforts and in this one.

"This is an attempt at a hostile takeover of the judicial branch," he said.

Ballinger said a mother of six in Berryville, who died while being taken to a hospital, and rural residents in particular would benefit from the greater access to health care Issue 1 would encourage.

Danielson replied that under Issue 1, "if a drunk driver kills a mother of six, that mother's family could only receive $500,000 in damages even if the driver has $1 million in insurance coverage.

"Insurance companies will love this," he said.

NW News on 08/25/2018