Rutledge rejects proposal to ban legal fee caps
A Little Rock attorney’s proposal to write broad government revisions and protections for lawyers into the Arkansas Constitution was dismissed as likely to be befuddling to voters by the attorney general on Friday.
Attorney General Leslie Rutledge’s opinion, released shortly before the close of business Friday, was another setback in a push to have the amendment placed on the November 2018 general election ballot, where it would compete with a proposal already set before voters by the state Legislature.
Lawyers assembled in Hot Springs last month for the Arkansas Bar Association meeting fell three votes short of a three-quarters majority needed to back the measure, written by attorney Scott Trotter.
Undeterred, and with a few tweaks, Trotter independently submitted his proposal to the attorney general along with language to be printed on the ballot describing the amendment to voters.
Trotter said Friday he plans on working through part of his current vacation to submit a new draft in about a week.
The language at issue — a short popular name followed by a longer ballot title — must get approval from the attorney general before it can be circulated for signatures on petitions and eventually printed on ballots.
The Arkansas Supreme Court also scrutinizes how initiated ballot questions are presented to voters. Last year, the justices ordered no votes be counted for two proposals they deemed had been inaccurately worded.
Among its various provisions, Trotter’s proposal would prevent the Legislature from setting caps on damages or attorneys’ fees in lawsuits, impose stricter campaign finance rules, increase the threshold for the Legislature to override a governor’s veto and prohibit the practice of lawmakers directing money to pet projects.
The amendment was written to compete with one approved for the 2018 ballot this year by the Republican-controlled Legislature, which voted for a proposal described as “tort reform.”
The Legislature’s proposed amendment, Senate Joint Resolution 8, would place caps on attorneys’ fees and “non-economic” damages in lawsuits, while giving the Legislature more control over the writing of court rules.
Unlike publicly backed ballot proposals, the Legislature doesn’t need the attorney general to approve the wording of its ballot proposals, though they could still be subject to a court challenge.
The name Trotter submitted to Rutledge was “An Amendment Preserving the Right of Juries to Set Damages, Requiring Disclosures in Elections, Addressing Separate Powers of the Three Branches of Government, and Imposing Limits on the Legislature.”
Rutledge, a Republican, found problems throughout the name — her concerns frequently used the words “partisan” and “misleading” — as well as the 824-word ballot title.
Getting into the finer details of Trotter’s wording, Rutledge’s opinion went as far as noting that his use of the word “proposal” appeared to conflict with the word’s definition in the dictionary.
Trotter said Friday he disagreed with Rutledge’s opinion, but he would take her criticism under advisement as he revises the language.