Justices: State Constitution Doesn’t Allow Arkansans to Sue Government

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FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (KNWA) — Arkansans don’t have a right under the state constitution to sue their government, the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled Thursday. 

The ruling stems from a lawsuit filed against the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees over an overtime dispute in Polk County, according to court documents. The university sought to have the lawsuit dismissed because of sovereign immunity. 

The university argued the lawsuit should be dismissed because of article five, section 20 of the Arkansas Constitution, which states, “The State of Arkansas shall never be made defendant in any of her courts.” 

In Thursday’s ruling, the Arkansas Supreme Court agreed with the university and reversed a lower court’s ruling that refused to dismiss the lawsuit. 

The original lawsuit was brought forth by Matthew Andrews, a former bookstore manager at Rich Mountain Community College in Mena. Andrews, a state worker, was allowed to sue the government for back pay under the Arkansas Minimum Wage Act, passed by the Legislature. 

According to Chief Justice John D. Kemp’s majority opinion, language in the AMWA allowing for the state government to be sued violates the Arkansas Constitution.

“The General Assembly does not have the power to override a constitutional provision,” Kemp wrote. 

The Arkansas Supreme Court said it interprets “The State of Arkansas shall never be made defendant in any of her courts,” precisely as it reads. 

Kemp wrote lawsuits subjecting the state to financial liability are barred by sovereign immunity, and people like Andrew have a proper avenue for state complaints. They can file a claim with the Arkansas Claims Commission. 

Rep. Bob Ballinger, R-Berryville, an attorney, said the ruling prevents Arkansans from filing lawsuits against the state government. 

He added the only way for this to be changed would be for the Arkansas Constitution to be amended by voters through a ballot measure.

Arkansans can either petition for this to be added to the ballot in a future election so it can be voted on, or the Legislature can vote on adding it to a future ballot when it convenes again in 2019. 

Either way, Ballinger said, this ruling will stand for quite a while. 

Attorney General Leslie Rutledge’s office released the following statement on the ruling, “The attorney general is pleased the court agreed with her position. The Arkansas Constitution is clear and must be followed.” 

Read the full ruling here

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