A research team from the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service has released its report concluding that the state could benefit from a public interest law firm, though funding sources would be an obvious stumbling block.
I couldn’t agree more with the findings. I participated a small bit in the study because I’m on the board of the Arkansas Public Law Center, which has used a small amount of seed money to pursue public interest legal work. The APLC’s lawsuit led to a change in abusive expense reimbursement practices by the Arkansas legislature. An APLC-backed lawsuit has won a preliminary round in challenging a law intended to restrict the ballot initiative process in Arkansas. An APLC/ACLU-backed lawsuit is to be argued this week on the state’s Voter ID law. The APLC is backing legal work challenging the state’s ban on same-sex marriage. It has committed support to a range of other issues, including open court, new limits on abortion in Arkansas and the passage of a gas industry tax break without the required super-majority vote.
It’s not a bad effort with limited resources, thanks to public-minded lawyers willing to work cheap. There is no office. No support staff. Just a volunteer board, currently led by Brent Bumpers, that meets periodically to talk about potential litigation. And, to Republican state Election Commissioner Stu Soffer’s criticism here that I thus have a “vested interest” in lawsuit outcomes when I, for example, criticize the Voter ID law: Board members receive no pay or expenses. Our vested interest is good public policy and abuses of law and constitutions in establishment of that policy.
But there’s so much more, particularly in the environmental field, as the report notes, that can be done. A full-time, committed and comprehensive effort — with an established funding source — would be a great benefit for the state. The sources of private support for such ventures, in my experience, unfortunately tend to have their own ways of influencing public policy at legislative bodies and executive offices.