LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas' highest court Thursday ordered election officials to not count votes for a proposal to limit damages awarded in civil lawsuits and rejected an effort to block an initiative to raise the state's minimum wage.
The Arkansas Supreme Court ruled on the two ballot measures days before early voting begins for the Nov. 6 midterm election. Justices upheld a state judge's ruling that the ballot measure limiting civil lawsuit damages unconstitutionally combined separate proposals. The measure also would have given the Legislature control over court rules in the state.
"The actual text of (the ballot measure) itself, even by a generous reading, institutes at least seven individual numerated changes or additions to the constitution that would significantly alter the status quo," Justice Jo Hart wrote in the court's 6-1 ruling.
The ballot measure blocked by the court would have capped civil damages at $500,000 for noneconomic losses, such as pain and psychological distress. It would cap punitive damages at $500,000 or three times the amount of compensatory damages awarded, whichever is higher. It also would cap attorneys' contingency fees at one-third of the net amount recovered.
"We see this as a win for the people of the state of Arkansas, that the constitution has meaning and it supports people's rights," said Jeff Priebe, an attorney for the retired judge challenging the measure.
Arkansas' majority-Republican Legislature last year voted to send voters the measure, an effort backed by business groups to reinstate legal caps that have been chipped away over the years by court rulings.
"This very ruling demonstrates the need for the reforms contained in Issue 1 that seek to restore the balance among our branches of government," Carl Vogelpohl, campaign manager for Arkansans for Jobs and Justice, the group behind the measure.
Supporters and opponents of the measure had spent more than $4.6 million combined on the campaign, with a flood of TV ads running throughout Arkansas. The proposal had faced surprising opposition from some Christian conservatives, including a group that rallied churches and abortion opponents against the measure.
Also, justices unanimously rejected a separate lawsuit trying to disqualify the proposal to gradually raise Arkansas' minimum wage from $8.50 an hour to $11 by 2021. Opponents of the proposal, which had included the state Chamber of Commerce, had challenged some of the signatures submitted for the initiative as invalid.
Supporters of the wage hike said they planned to ramp up their advertising campaign now that the proposal cleared the legal challenge.
"We've been holding back and being very conservative up until this point in time because you don't want to spend a lot money and be taken off the ballot," said David Couch, the attorney for the wage-hike campaign.
Arkansas' minimum wage is higher than its surrounding states, though a wage increase is also on Missouri's ballot next month.
"If it passes, this measure will be detrimental to our state's economy, costing Arkansas jobs, increasing prices for Arkansas consumers, and ultimately hurting many Arkansas workers," Randy Zook, president of the state Chamber of Commerce, said.
The Supreme Court has yet to rule on a lawsuit challenging another ballot measure that would impose the strictest term limits in the country on Arkansas' legislators. The court last week rejected a challenge to a casino legalization measure.