Stories about Arkansas

Arkansas Voters First, redistricting initiative sponsors, file lawsuit seeking relief from signature petition requirements

Arkansas Voters First, sponsors of an initiative to create an independent redistricting commission, filed a lawsuit against Secretary of State John Thurston (R) on April 22.

To qualify for the November ballot, sponsors need to submit 89,151 valid signatures by July 3, 2020. Signatures for Arkansas initiatives must be collected in person. Currently, none of the 26 states with a process for citizen initiatives allow electronic signature gathering.

The group seeks relief from certain signature petition requirements, such as in-person signature, witness, and notary requirements. The group asked to be allowed to gather electronic signatures and asked for the deadline to be extended by one month to August 3, 2020. Thurston said he does not have the power to suspend the signature requirements.

The lawsuit said, “Close, in-person interactions are necessary to any effort to gather wet signatures for an amendment to be placed on the ballot. However, given the severe restrictions on the ability to physically interact with others, Plaintiffs cannot comply with Arkansas’s formal constitutional and statutory signature requirements. Given the current circumstances, Arkansas’s requirements unduly burden Plaintiffs’ fundamental First and Fourteenth Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution.”

The initiative would create the Citizens’ Redistricting Commission for state legislative and congressional redistricting. The commission would have nine commissioners. It would replace the Board of Apportionment that is currently responsible for state legislative redistricting in Arkansas. The state legislature is currently responsible for congressional redistricting. The measure would establish qualifying criteria for members and would restrict individuals from serving if they were, within the last 5 years, an elected official, lobbyist, political party officer, political action committee employee, or if they were the spouse of any such individuals. The measure would establish criteria for drawing district maps.

On March 19, 2020, Arkansas Voters First suspended signature-gathering efforts due to the coronavirus pandemic but stated they planned to complete signature gathering before the deadline for the 2020 ballot when restrictions were lifted. When the group filed its lawsuit on April 22, Arkansas Voters First Director Bonnie Miller said, “We have a right to petition our government to amend our constitution. We don’t have the luxury of waiting until next year. If we are denied access to the ballot this year, Arkansas could be stuck with unfair and unrepresentative districts for another ten years.”

Most states are required to draw new U.S. congressional district lines every 10 years following completion of the United States Census (those states comprising one congressional district are not required to redistrict). In 35 of these states, state legislatures are primarily responsible for redistricting. In seven states, independent commissions draw congressional district lines. In one state, a politician commission draws the lines.

In 36 of the 50 states, state legislatures are primarily responsible for state legislative redistricting. Independent commissions draw state legislative district lines in 10 states. In four states, politician commissions are responsible for state legislative redistricting.

In 2018, voters in five states approved changes to their redistricting systems for state legislative districts, congressional districts, or both. Ohio, Colorado, Michigan, Missouri, and Utah featured measures, with Ohio’s on the ballot in May and the rest on the ballot in November. In Michigan, Missouri, and Utah, the redistricting measures were put on the ballot as citizen initiatives. In Ohio and Colorado, the measures were referred to the ballot by state legislatures, compromising with the proponents of citizen initiative efforts.

Ballotpedia is tracking changes to ballot measure campaigns, procedures, and policies and ballot measure-related lawsuits in response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Additional Reading:
Arkansas Redistricting Commission Amendment (2020)
Changes to ballot measure campaigns, procedures, and policies in response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, 2020

Arkansas Supreme Court limits judicial deference to state agencies

An April 9 Arkansas Supreme Court ruling limited how much deference agency interpretations of law would receive in the future. The court ruled in Meyers v. Yamato Kogyo Co. that the court should determine the meaning of state laws for itself and should not defer to state agency interpretations.

Justice Shawn Womack delivered the opinion of the court and cited “the risk of giving core judicial powers to executive agencies in violation of the constitutional separation of powers” if they did not clarify how courts were supposed to review agency decisions.

Womack wrote that the power and responsibility to interpret laws lies with the judicial branch while the executive branch enforces laws made and interpreted by the legislature and courts. He went on to say that by “giving deference to agencies’ interpretations of statutes, the court effectively transfers the job of interpreting the law from the judiciary to the executive. This we cannot do.”

Womack added that the court would review all future agency interpretations of statutes on a _de novo_ basis, which means without relying on the agencies’ conclusions. He wrote that the court would interpret unambiguous laws based on the clear meaning of their texts. In cases where the law in question is ambiguous, he wrote that agency interpretations of ambiguity would only be one of many tools the court would use to determine the meaning of the law.

Special Justice Scott Hilburn joined the opinion written by Justice Womack. Justice Karen R. Baker concurred with the decision but did not write a separate opinion. Chief Justice Dan Kemp did not participate in the case. Justice Josephine Hart wrote a dissenting opinion focusing on the facts of the case and not judicial deference in general.

Click here to learn more about judicial deference.

Click here to learn how other states have responded to judicial deference.

Additional reading:
Journey: Judicial review
Shawn Womack
Arkansas Supreme Court
The Administrative State Project

Click here to read the Arkansas Supreme Court decision.