Circuit Judge Mary McGowan today struck down a state requirement that paid petition canvassers must pass state and federal criminal background checks by the State Police, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette first reported.
She said the law was impossible to comply with because the State Police can’t conduct federal background checks and that it was an unconstitutional restriction on the state Constitution’s protection of the freedom of people to petition government, whether through constitutional amendments or initiated acts and referendums.
The Arkansas Supreme Court this year struck down two proposed amendments — on nonpartisan legislative redistricting and a change in primary elections — and a referendum on a new state law expanding surgery privileges for optometrists. It cited the failure of paid canvassers to comply with the background check provision.
The issue before McGowan was presented by Safe Surgery Arkansas, a group backed by ophthalmologists that wanted a referendum on the optometrist surgery bill.
It comes too late to save any of the ballot measures ruled off. The state defended the law and will appeal the ruling. If the ruling is preserved, the law couldn’t be used against future petition campaigns. An amendment proposed by the legislature would further tighten petition rules to the point that ballot measures would be exceedingly difficult to qualify. That amendment is currently under challenge in a case before the Supreme Court.
Here’s the judge’s ruling, provided by Safe Surgery’s attorney Nate Steel. It came with a preliminary injunction against Secretary of State John Thurston but isn’t a final order because he hasn’t yet responded.