The House today passed a bill from Rep. Brandt Smith, modeled on legislation pursued in other states, with the stated aim was to “protect … citizens from the application of foreign laws.” Though such bills, including Smith’s, do not explicitly mention Sharia law, that is widely seen as their focus. Smith, spooky like, calls his bill “American laws for American courts.”
Smith has long been stressed out about the possibility of Sharia law coming to Arkansas. He tried unsuccessfully to pass a similar bill in 2015. I spoke with him last year about the issue and here’s what he had to say:
When you deal with tribal people or people from other countries that have their own legal system, oftentimes when they immigrate to the United States, they are fleeing oppression or they’re seeking better opportunities. .. But in some of these cases, most of these immigrants tend to cluster in areas where there are other people of the same ethnicity and cultural background, so they have a hard time assimilating into our country. … In some cases they also bring their problems with them, and they’ll bring a legal system with them.
There is some debate whether this is merely fanciful anti-terrorist LARPing from demagoguing Republican politicians or an actually harmful measure with terrible real-world results. One thing that’s crystal clear is that the problem it purports to solve does not exist.
Speaking for his bill today, Smith gave a long speech about American history and the American constitution.
“We are a nation of laws,” he said, uncontroversially.
More tendentiously, he said that sneaky foreign legal doctrines were worming their way into American courts in order to impose a sinister agenda and undermine American values. He said that the impact of all this creeping encroachment of foreign legalese “on ordinary American citizens is as profound as it is despairing.” That it’s invisible despite the profound despair, one must assume, only shows how devious this foreign encroachment really is.
Smith told a few random stories but offered no actual examples of the problem his bill purports to solve. He seemed to more or less acknowledge the invisibility or non-existence of the problem, but said that he wants to “get out in front of potential problems down the road.”
Rep. Karilyn Brown spoke for the bill. “All of us have grown up here in America and we know what we find to be customary,” she said. “Not everybody has that.” She claimed, falsely, that the bill was necessary to combat the practice of female genital mutilation.
Rep. Michael John Gray spoke against the bill. “As a student of the law, nothing we pass in the United States is going to dictate how a court operates in Pakistan,” he said.
Rep. Marcus Richmond spoke for the bill. He said that he had traveled to more than 70 nations as a Marine. “I can assure that in places like Pakistan, places like Saudi Arabia, and many of these other countries, there is nothing there that is civilized,” he said. Richmond also said that they were bad drivers.
“To think that something you have heard, and may believe, would prevent this from happening in this country, I cannot agree with,” Richmond said. “You cannot tell me anybody here can predict what will happen in the future. … look at the enclaves that come in and the way that people are controlled when they come here.”
In closing, Richmond said let’s save the children: “You only have to go to the Chop Chop Square one time in Saudi Arabia to realize that there’s a brutality. … You may not think that anything has happened in the past here in the state of Arkansas, but you cannot guarantee that something will not happen in the future. And the protection of children — to keep them from being kidnapped out of this state — if this saves one kid, it’s worth the effort.”
Rep. Jana Della Rosa spoke against the bill. She said she had no opposition to American laws in American courts, but pointed out that thankfully we already have American laws in American courts. While the bill’s backers were talking about the situations in other nations, she noted that a bill passed in the Arkansas General Assembly would have no impact on that.
“I don’t think it’s necessary,” she said. “We’re fixing a problem that does not exist. … I’ve talked to judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys and nobody really knows exactly what the impact of this would be, but they all agree that at best it does nothing, at worst it causes unintended consequences — and it’s almost guaranteed to be litigated and we’re almost guaranteed to lose.”
Smith closed for his bill by telling the story of an unnamed retired judge who told Smith that he wished he had a bill this to help him when he was on the bench.
The bill passed 63-24 and is on to the Senate.
Among the fears raised about the bill in the debate in House committee last week: Latino Arkansans who worried the bill would affect ID cards issued by consulates to foreign nationals; a representative of the Unitarian Univeralist church who asked whether the references to Amendment 83 were an attempt to abridge the rights of same-sex couples; an attorney who said the bill could create headaches for international business transactions in the state; and, multiple speakers who expressed concern the law was targeting Muslims. No member of the public spoke in favor of the bill.