WENDELL GRIFFEN Brian Chilson

A second effort to disqualify the signatures for a proposed ballot initiative on eye surgery regulations was dismissed in Pulaski County Circuit Court today. The proposed referendum would repeal a recent law that authorizes optometrists to do certain surgical procedures.

Today’s ruling appears to clear the way to put the question before voters this November.

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With heavy spending on lobbyists form both sides, optometrists and ophthalmologists have been bickering for months over what became Act 579, passed by the legislature last March.

The ophthalmologist-backed Safe Surgery Arkansas committee is hoping to repeal the law via a ballot initiative; the optometrist-backed Arkansans for Healthy Eyes has been attempting to block that effort in court.

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Secretary of State John Thurston initially disqualified Safe Surgery’s petitions because of a new law regarding requirements for paid canvassers, but the state Supreme Court ruled last month in a 4-3 decision that all of the group’s petitions should be counted, based upon the old rules. Arkansans for Healthy Eyes then asked the court for a re-hearing on the issue. But last week the court, again in a 4-3 decision, rejected that request. 

In response, Arkansas for Healthy Eyes filed a new lawsuit in Pulaski County Circuit Court, challenging the signatures on different grounds.

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Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen today dismissed that complaint. Griffen held that his court did not have jurisdiction to challenge the sufficiency of the ballot petition, and that any challenge should be made in the state Supreme Court.

In a brief note explaining his decision, Griffen stated that the Secretary of State has validated the signatures for the petition. According to Safe Surgery Arkansas, an FOI request earlier this month to the Secretary of State’s office revealed that it has collected the necessary number of valid signatures to refer the question to voters this November. Thurston has yet to officially certify the petition; he has previously stated that his office was waiting on the legal case to be fully resolved before issuing a determination on certifying the petition. Griffen’s ruling would appear to open the door for him to do so — Griffen rejected the Healthy Eyes group’s request for a temporary restraining order barring the petition from being certified.

Proponents of Act 579 argue that opening more procedures to optometrists will improve access to needed services; opponents argue that additional medical training is required to perform these procedures, including injections around the eye and certain laser eye surgeries.

“We’re still weighing our options moving forward,” said Vicki Farmer, chairperson for the Arkansans for Healthy Eyes Ballot Question Committee, in the wake of Griffen’s ruling. “The legal issues in this case are complex, but the underlying facts remain simple. The opposition group didn’t follow the law- ANY law- in its effort to put this measure on the ballot.”

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Here’s more from Farmer regarding whether the petition followed the rules (which were changed via a different law passed by the legislature, Act 376, which enacted stricter regulations regarding paid canvassers):

The Supreme Court says Pre-Act 376 law was in place. That law requires a petition’s ballot title to be certified by the Attorney General before signature gathering begins, and the opposition group never did that, either.  There are still a lot of questions surrounding the petition process in this case. We are committed to getting those answered, and to ensuring Act 579- a law that will benefit patients in all parts of the state- remains in place.