Arkadelphia News

Arkansas Supreme Court lifts LEARNS Act restraining order


The Arkansas Supreme Court on Thursday allowed Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ signature education law, the LEARNS Act, to take immediate effect.

The state’s high court in a 5-2 decision lifted a temporary restraining order entered by a Pulaski County circuit judge that blocked implementation of the LEARNS Act, but the court’s majority declined to rule on the novel arguments being made about the validity of the law’s emergency clause.

Instead, the majority in a 10-page opinion reversed the TRO because the plaintiffs failed to demonstrate they would suffer irreparable harm, the first threshold that must be met when issuing a restraining order or preliminary injunction.

“We have held that an injunction is an extraordinary right reserved for extraordinary circumstances,” Associate Justice Courtney Hudson wrote for the majority.

The decision means that state education officials may again continue with the implementation of the LEARNS Act. However, it is not the end of the litigation challenging the new law. 

The ruling remands the case back to circuit court where Pulaski County Circuit Judge Herb Wright has already indicated that he’s likely to agree the act’s emergency clause was not properly adopted. Wright has scheduled a hearing for Tuesday.

If Wright again ruled against the LEARNS Act’s immediate implementation, it would set up another appeal before the Supreme Court, which would then be forced to rule on the arguments surrounding emergency clause adoption.

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a Thursday statement that she has spoken with Education Secretary Jacob Oliva who is ready to continue implementing provisions of the LEARNS Act.

“He is immediately getting back to implementing the boldest, most transformational education reform in the country,” Sanders said. “For those playing political games with our children’s future, we will fight, and we will win.”

Little Rock lawyer Ali Noland filed a lawsuit in Pulaski County last month that argues the LEARNS Act is not yet in effect because its emergency clause wasn’t passed by a separate roll-call vote garnering a two-thirds majority, as required by the state Constitution. An emergency clause allows new laws to take effect immediately instead of 91 days after the Legislature adjourns. 

The plaintiffs also argued the Legislature failed to establish that an emergency existed that made immediate implementation of the law necessary. 

The lawsuit was brought over whether a small Delta school district can finalize a “transformation contract” with a charter management company. 

The LEARNS Act provides such contracts to allow academically struggling schools to partner with a third party in lieu of state takeover. The State Board of Education approved a transformation contract between the Marvell-Elaine School District and the Friendship Education Foundation in May as an alternative to consolidating the district. 

Noland argued irreparable harm would be caused absent the restraining order because of of potential illegal exactions from payments made by the Marvell-Elaine School District to the Friendship Education Foundation pursuant to the transformation contract that would diminish the district’s remaining funds; and due to the nonrenewal of the MESD’s employee contracts, the impact on their ability to appeal the nonrenewal notices and the adverse effects flowing from the loss of employment.

Harm is normally considered irreparable when it can’t be “adequately compensated by money damages or redressed in a court of law,” according to the opinion. 

“Appellees’ claims regarding the expenditure of funds under the transformation contract are clearly monetary in nature and are therefore not considered irreparable,” the opinion states. “The alleged harm from the nonrenewal of the employment contracts and other adverse effects related to these nonrenewals can also be adequately compensated by money damages or redressed in a court of law.” 

While the majority opinion didn’t address the emergency clause arguments, several individual justices did in a series of concurring and dissenting opinions. 

Associate Justice Shawn Womack, a former Republican state legislator, in a concurring opinion wrote that the plaintiffs challenging the LEARNS Act hadn’t shown that they’d be likely to win their case. 

Most of their claims, he opined, are barred by sovereign immunity. He also wrote that the emergency clauses were properly adopted and video recordings of proceedings of the General Assembly do not constitute an official record.

“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,” Womack wrote. “As a result, the process by which the General Assembly passed the LEARNS Act was undoubtedly constitutional.”

In a separate concurring opinion, Justice Rhonda Wood wrote that the Supreme Court, if it struck down the emergency clause, would be answering a political question and violating the separation of powers.

Chief Justice John Dan Kemp in a dissenting opinion joined by Justice Robin Wynne wrote that the plaintiffs had established that irreparable harm would be suffered and they were likely to succeed on the merits of their emergency clause arguments. Emphasizing the affidavit of the state Senate’s chief attorney, who said lawmakers “have decided to convey their separate roll call votes on emergency clauses in the same utterance as their votes on the underlying bill,” Kemp said he would’ve let the TRO stand.

“It appears that they have demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits that, by failing to conduct a separate roll-call vote on the emergency clause, the General Assembly did not substantially comply with the requirements set forth in article 5, section 1 of the Arkansas Constitution,” Kemp wrote.

Attorney General Tim Griffin, whose office defended the LEARNS Act, celebrated the decision in a statement.

“This is a huge win for Arkansas’s children, their parents and teachers, and the Department of Education can now get back to implementing the LEARNS Act,” Griffin said.

Noland called Thursday’s ruling a temporary setback and said it doesn’t prevent plaintiffs from prevailing at Tuesday’s hearing. 

“While the Plaintiffs are understandably frustrated that today’s ruling diminishes the severity of the harm caused by the State’s unconstitutional actions, the Plaintiffs remain confident that they will prevail in the end,” she said.

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