Arkansas Court: Lawmakers Can’t Waive State’s Suit Immunity

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LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — The Arkansas Legislature can’t loosen the state’s immunity from lawsuits, the state’s highest court found Thursday (Jan. 18) in a ruling that critics said would give officials “king-like” protection from court challenges on a number of fronts.

In a 5-2 ruling, the court said a 2006 measure allowing lawsuits against the state seeking damages for violations of its minimum wage law conflicted with the Arkansas Constitution granting sovereign immunity from suits in state court. The court ruled against a former bookstore manager at a community college in Mena who sued the school for failing to pay him for working overtime.

“The General Assembly does not have the power to override a constitutional provision,” Chief Justice Dan Kemp wrote in the ruling.

The decision doesn’t necessarily prevent all lawsuits against Arkansas in state court. The Supreme Court has recognized an exemption to that immunity when the state is acting illegally or unconstitutionally, or if a state official refuses to do a purely ministerial action required by the state. The court also noted that residents seeking monetary damages can go before the state Claims Commission.

The two justices who dissented from the ruling said it would create “complete disarray” on Arkansas’ sovereign immunity and could affect a wide range of cases including whistleblower and Freedom of Information Act lawsuits.

“The majority’s opinion transforms the state to king-like status and makes ‘the king can do no wrong’ theory absolute,” Justice Karen Baker wrote in the dissenting opinion.

An attorney for Matthew Andrews, who filed the lawsuit, said the ruling removes a key protection for state employees.

“What it does is it makes state employees, to a degree, second-class citizens when it comes to protection of their wage rights and that’s unfortunate because we need people to want to work for the government,” Josh Sanford said.

A spokeswoman for Attorney General Leslie Rutledge said the Republican was pleased with the ruling, saying she believed “the Constitution is clear and must be followed.”

The University of Arkansas system’s attorney also said he was pleased with the decision. The system’s Board of Trustees was the defendant in in the former employee’s suit.

“The court properly focused on the plain meaning of the Constitution’s sovereign-immunity provision, its historical context, and decades of judicial precedents that squarely addressed the constitutionality of statutory waivers,” said David Curran, the system’s associate general counsel.