Circuit Judge Bill Pearson of Russellville today denied at a hearing today the request from Pope County Judge Ben Cross and the Pope County Quorum Court for attorney fees in the suit that sought to enforce a county ordinance requiring a vote before the Quorum Court could endorse a casino application.
The judge said Citizens for a Better Pope County had a justiciable issue in seeking to have the ordinance enforced and so attorney fees weren’t justified. (Commentary: No kidding. I didn’t understand how a county judge and quorum court get to declare a voter-approved ordinance invalid without going to court first.) The county officials approved a casino application without having a countywide vote first, as the ordinance required. The ordinance was approved by voters in November at the same election voters statewide, but not in Pope County, approved expanded casino gambling.
Pearson declared the ordinance unconstitutional because a local vote wasn’t provided for in the state constitutional amendment that expanded casino gambling to include Pope County.
There are more fees to come. The decision on the vote ordinance is being appealed to the Arkansas Supreme Court.
Casino opponents weren’t wholly happy with Pearson today. He declined to disqualify from the case. A casino opponent has an ethics complaint pending against Pearson because his re-election campaign posted a laudatory statement by County Judge Ben Cross on the campaign Facebook page after he issued the decision on the election ordinance.
Today, Pearson said he wouldn’t disqualify because the Cross statement came after his decision in the case and it had no impact on it.
And so the legal battle grinds on. The voter ordinance will be appealed. Circuit Judge Tim Fox is still sitting on a separate lawsuit by a Mississippi casino operator that it is qualified to receive the Pope County permit. The Quorum Court gave approval to a Cherokee tribe application. Fox wanted to send the case to Pope County, but he got it back. By law, jurisdiction is in Pulaski County because it’s an appeal of a state administration decision (Racing Commission) by an entity, Gulfside Casino Partnership, that is not a resident of Pope County. So far, Fox has indicated he’s in no hurry to hear the case.
Also hanging are 1) a Racing Commission decision on permit applications and 2) a special prosecutor’s review of whether the Quorum Court met illegally in the course of working out a $38 million deal with the Cherokees that was ultimately approved without public debate.