Attorney General Leslie Rutledgemoved to dodge an appearance in Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen’s court this morning by asking that a lawsuit against her be removed to federal court because it raises, among others, a question of violation of the 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
A committee hoping to petition for a constitutional amendment to expand casino gambling in Arkansas has been denied approval of its idea by Rutledge. It is one of 70 denials of petitions she’s issued since the 2016 election. She’s approved none, claiming a higher standard for clarity is required by Arkansas Supreme Court rulings.
For now, that puts off an effort by attorneys to question Rutledge on her procedures, something she’s resisted. The judge refused her request not to testify at all. He said he first had to hear questions posed to her before deciding whether they infringed on a privilege she claimed not to have to explain her decision-making.
The question now is whether a removal to federal court essentially would put an end to any the petition drives this election cycle. For petitions to be circulated, the attorney general must approve the wording the proposals must be published by June 6, with petitions due the first week in July. She’s not yet approved a single new petition and has shown no inclination to do so.
Here’s the argument that Rutledge is not doing her duty in blocking the casino initiative. A separate lawsuit filed yesterday at the Arkansas Supreme Court raises no federal questions in arguing Rutledge has violated the Arkansas Constitution in blocking a minimum wage proposal.
Update, 11:20 a.m.: Judge Griffen appeared briefly this morning to announce the case is stayed pending resolution of the action in federal court. The federal case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker.
Alex Gray, an attorney for the plaintiffs, spoke to reporters afterward. He said the plaintiffs will fight Rutledge’s attempt to remove the case to federal court and predicted it would soon land back in state court. He noted the tight timeline faced by any group hoping to gather signatures for a ballot initiative. The attorney general’s motion to move to a federal venue was an effort to “stonewall,” he said.
“This was a procedural move by the attorney general’s office. To say it’s done in good faith is probably not an accurate statement. This is just an attempt to further delay Arkansans’ right to petition for a constitutional amendment,” Gray said. “Our claim is that the statute is unconstitutional, but we also claim the AG is acting unconstitutionally in the way she’s applying it. I think it’s pretty evident she doesn’t want to have a hearing, she doesn’t want to testify.”
He pointed out Rutledge’s office filed the motion less than an hour before this morning’s hearing before Griffen was set to begin. “This hearing has been scheduled for more than two weeks. The attorney general’s office easily could have done this prior to 50 minutes before today’s hearing, but they’re just trying to run out the clock. Which is too bad, because the attorney general is not protecting Arkansans’ constitutional rights; she’s violating Arkansans’ constitutional rights,” Gray said.
Asked why he thought Rutledge has denied all 70 ballot measures proposed to her office this election cycle, Gray responded, “that’s a wonderful question. I’d like to ask her that. … I’m sure I’ll get a chance to ask her soon.”
“We’ll get our day in court,” he said.
He acknowledged later that time is of the essence. He reiterated that the case was based solely on an Arkansas constitutional question, not a 1st Amendment claim as Rutledge claimed. He said he was confident when they get a hearing on the point, they will prevail. But with time growing short, even eventual favorable rulings might not come soon enough on a process that has been underway since the first of the year.