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HOT SPRINGS -- The first day of the Arkansas Bar Association convention Wednesday ended with a themed Derby Party, which meant lawyers in funny hats and seersucker suits got play money to spend on faux races.

Meanwhile, the real race -- one with millions of actual dollars at stake -- was playing out across the convention hall.

There, in a booth set up near the popcorn stand, former Supreme Court Justice Annabelle Imber Tuck solicited donations for a bar association-affiliated campaign to defeat Issue 1 on Arkansas' November ballot.

The proposed constitutional amendment would set caps on attorneys' fees and certain lawsuit damages, plus -- in what lawyers say is the biggest affront to their business -- give lawmakers the final rule-making authority over the courts. Its backers in business and the Legislature pitch the amendment as tort reform that they say will reduce the costs of doing business in Arkansas by making companies less exposed to frivolous or costly litigation.

"This part that they're not talking about is the part that will destroy our courts because it will bring in money and politics," Tuck said, referring to the rule-making authority provisions in the proposal.

Issue 1 was much debated during the three-day bar association conference that ended Friday. The proposal was the subject of hallway conversations and a series of panel discussions.

Even Arkansas Chief Justice Dan Kemp -- while cautioning that he offered no promises to how he would rule on the measure should it end up in his court -- said he would personally vote against Issue 1 in November, and he implored others to do the same. (Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a licensed attorney, also spoke, but said he was still trying to decide how he would vote on Issue 1.)

In a statement Friday, Arkansas Chamber of Commerce President Randy Zook said attorneys were exaggerating their claims about the changes in Issue 1, and he placed the need for change on the practices of the courts and attorneys.

"Lawyers who claim the sky is falling because of the rule making authority are simply trying to avoid the real issue at hand, which is recruiting doctors to care for our families, boosting our economy and preventing excessive attorneys fees," Zook said. "That's what Issue 1 is really about."

The bar association has taken a tactical approach to opposing Issue 1, officially targeting only the portions of the proposal that give the Legislature more power over courts, including the rules of evidence, expert testimony and the method of awarding attorneys' fees.

Past efforts have failed to have the group take an official stance against limits on attorneys' fees and damages.

"We've got plenty of people on both sides of the tort limitation question," said Tony Hilliard, the outgoing association president. "Everyone is opposed to the rules."

Through Tuck and other members, the association helped organize an independent ballot question committee to raise money to oppose Issue 1. The committee is called Defending Your Day In Court.

"The other side has massive amounts of money because they have support from special-interest groups," Tuck said. "This time the lawyers are going to be going out and talking about this."

As of last month, the group had raised $62,298, a fraction of the sums raised by other groups on both sides of Issue 1.

One attorney, Little Rock's Brad Hendricks of his self-titled law firm, has given more than $500,000 to his own committee, the Liberty Defense Network. Another opposing group, the Committee to Protect AR Families, has raised more than $1.5 million in its effort, largely from attorneys, according to the latest filings with the state.

Issue 1 supporters, led by the Chamber of Commerce-backed committee Arkansans for Jobs and Justice, have raised more than $1.4 million, according to finance reports.

Bar association leaders on Friday urged members to support Tuck's committee but also seemed to acknowledge the limited haul it has amassed so far, saying lawyers would have to do their own footwork to inform voters.

"We have people in every town in the state and we have people that know how to speak against it," Hilliard said. "That's our biggest opportunity."

Listening to a series of luncheon speakers Friday, Jerry Dodd, a corporate attorney from Malvern, seemed tuned in to the warnings of the incoming bar association president, Suzanne Clark, that proponents of Issue 1 would attempt to frame the debate around old tropes of "greedy attorneys."

While expressing concern about "out-of-control" class-action attorneys, Dodd said Issue 1 went too far in trying to correct the problem, and that its proposal to amend the rule-making would give lobbyists greater influence over that process.

"Greedy attorneys are a very small percentage of us," Dodd said.

Another attorney, Ed Koon of Sheridan, failed to recall an issue that drew as much attention from the bar association, which he joined in 1995.

"This is the biggest in my memory," said Koon.

Metro on 06/17/2018

Print Headline: Lawyers set focus on ballot measure

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