THAT WAS THEN: The term limits campaign cheered completion of a signature drive. The Arkansas Supreme Court today said it failed.

A new term limits proposal will not make the fall ballot, the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled today in a split decision.

It dealt with a challenge of the proposal by the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce on two separate questions: signature sufficiency of petitions and whether the ballot title was misleading.

It accepted a special master’s finding that the petition signatures were insufficient and thus said the question on the ballot title was moot.

The decision on the signatures was split 4-3. Justice Shawn Womack wrote the opinion. He was joined by Chief Justice Dan Kemp and Justices Rhonda Wood and Courtney Goodson. Justices Jo Hart, Karen Baker and Robin Wynne dissented.

Advertisement

The amendment was the product of a two-year petition campaign that evolved from a volunteer to paid effort and some of the paid signature gathering ran afoul of new technicalities imposed in a law on paid canvassing intended to make such petition efforts harder.

The amendment would have replaced the current 16-year term limit on legislative service (up to 22 years in some rare circumstances) with a 10-year cap that could be divided between up to six years in the House and eight in the Senate.

The new amendment was a reaction to the 16-year limit put on the ballot by the legislature in 2014 and styled a “term limits” amendment even though it actually extended the previous limit of three terms in the House and two in the Senate. The key change allowed a legislator to serve 16 years in one chamber, an immense benefit in seniority and stature.

Amendment backers submitted more than 135,000 signatures, with 84,859 valid signatures of registered voters needed. Originally, more than 93,000 signatures were held to be valid. When an opposing group led by Randy Zoo, head of the state chamber, challenged the sufficiency, the Supreme Court appointed a special master who concluded that more than 14,000 signatures were disqualified for various reasons and so the amendment failed to meet the number needed.

The Supreme Court specifically upheld the invalidation of more than 4,000 signatures because the canvasser indicated a residence address different than that submitted to the secretary of state’s office for filing as a canvasser. It tossed almost 2,000 signatures because the canvasser gathered signatures before a criminal background check required by law was completed. Similarly, another 3,000 were invalidated because they were collected before names of canvassers were submitted to the secretary of state. Another 479 were invalidated because a canvasser had a felony conviction.

The Supreme Court rejected proponents’ argument that the secretary of state had improperly culled many signatures before the validation process began.

Advertisement

Significantly, the Supreme Court also rejected the argument that the restrictions on paid canvassers amounted to constitutional violations.

Wynne, writing for the three dissenters, said the petitions were sufficient. He disputed the majority’s findings on technicalities required of canvassers.

For example, on the 4,371 signatures invalidated because canvassers submitted “false” affidavits of residency, Wynne wrote that canvassers didn’t understand that under Arkansas law place of residence meant where they were staying when the affidavit was filed, not their permanent residence. Many canvassers come from out of state to work in such campaigns.

While it is true that this court held in McDaniel v. Spencer, 2015 Ark. 94, 457 S.W.3d 641, that the term “current residence address” is not ambiguous, neither the legislature nor this court has ever defined that term. There is no evidence that the canvassers who executed the supplemental affidavits did not reasonably consider the addresses they listed on their initial affidavits to be their current residence addresses at the time those affidavits were executed. The wording of the supplemental affidavits bears this out. 

Here the court gave the legislature a victory it wanted. It is unlikely to assuage lawmakers’ unhappiness about the decision Thursday to keep Issue One, the tort reform measure, from voters. Sen. Trent Garner, to name one, has already vowed to take budget retribution on the court (a funny thing to do for someone protesting an imbalance of power among the branches.)

The ballot issues are now fixed. Voters will consider a voter ID amendment. a minimum wage increase and casino expansion. Early voting begins Monday.