BRENDA BLAGG: A challenging time

Ballot issues face legal battles before election

Posted: September 12, 2018 at 1 a.m.

A Pulaski County judge did Arkansas voters the favor last week of disqualifying Issue 1, that mess of a constitutional amendment proposed by the Arkansas Legislature.

Circuit Judge Mackie Pierce ruled no votes may be counted for or against the multi-faceted question, which will still appear on printed ballots on Nov. 6.

Various provisions in the proposed amendment, he ruled, are "not reasonably germane" to one another, and therefore unconstitutional.

This isn't the first time a proposed ballot issue failed because its backers tried to pack too much into a single proposal.

Sometimes, what's added is designed to sweeten a proposal to secure additional votes. Other times, the strategy is to tag something not so popular to something that is. Or, the plan might be to put issues together to try to attract more financial backing for a campaign.

Thankfully, such over-packed proposals usually fail court challenge, as happened when Issue 1 reached Judge Pierce.

But the lower court ruling will be appealed and the Arkansas Supreme Court will ultimately decide whether voters will consider Issue 1.

In drafting this proposal, the Legislature mixed dollar limits on allowable awards in civil lawsuits and caps on attorneys' fees with an extension of judicial rule-making authority to the Legislature itself.

The result is a proposed change in the state Constitution that is almost 2,600 words long and challenging to understand, particularly for non-lawyers.

The tort reform aspect has been on the Legislature's agenda forever, it seems, argued primarily on behalf of health care and business interests.

The constant claim is that tort reform will foster a better business climate and attract more doctors to the state.

The fundamental argument on the other side of tort reform is against putting dollar limits on the value of life and that litigation represents a primary way to even the playing field for the "little guy" who has been wronged.

Many opponents to Issue 1 are particularly incensed about the Legislature's effort to meddle in rule-making for the courts, a responsibility now in the hands of the Arkansas Supreme Court.

Just so you know, voters aren't going to be spared the campaigns for and against Issue 1. Both sides have indicated they'll continue their advertising and other efforts to push voters to the polls.

The opposing campaigns will reportedly spend a collective $3 million to win votes that may -- or may not -- count.


Meanwhile, there have been a couple of developments on the initiative front, too.

That casino gambling amendment is now on the ballot officially as Issue 4.

Backers eventually turned in just shy of 100,000 valid signatures, or well more than the required 84,859, according to the secretary of state's office.

Voters are scheduled to consider whether to allow four casinos in the state, two at new locations and two tied to long-existing horse- and dog-racing tracks.

However, within days of the initiative being certified to the ballot, it was challenged in the Arkansas Supreme Court. The lawsuit claims the text of the proposed amendment is unclear and misleading.

Two other court challenges to ballot initiatives are proceeding as well.

The Supreme Court named special masters in lawsuits over Issues 3 and 5.

Issue 3 would amend the Constitution to impose strict new term limits on state lawmakers. Issue 5, an initiated act, would gradually raise the state's minimum wage.

The special masters will review claims challenging signatures on petitions for each of the initiatives.

That leaves only Issue 2, the second referral from the Legislature, as the only ballot question not currently before the Supreme Court. It is a constitutional amendment requiring voters to present valid photographic IDs.

So, four out of five of this year's crop of ballot proposals are presently being challenged before the Supreme Court (or soon will be).

Come November, will votes cast for or against any of them actually count? Should they?

Commentary on 09/12/2018