BY MELANIE WADE –
A debate that began with a local case was the beginning of a ripple effect that concluded with a ruling by the Arkansas Supreme Court last week that Arkansans do not have the right to file a lawsuit against the state. The ruling was handed down in a 5-2 decision by the high court.
The case began with a lawsuit against what was then Rich Mountain Community College. A former bookstore manager at RMCC, Matthew Andrews, sued the college seeking overtime pay. RMCC is now under the umbrella of the University of Arkansas and carries a new name, University of Arkansas – Rich Mountain.
The college sought to have the case thrown out in circuit court citing ‘sovereign immunity’ – a legal doctrine by which the sovereign or state cannot commit a legal wrong and is immune from civil suit or criminal prosecution. Sovereign immunity is included in Arkansas’ constitution in Article 5, Section 20, which states, “The State of Arkansas shall never be made a defendant in any of her courts.” However, that was changed in 1996 by the state’s high court when they reversed that and began allowing laws to pass with exemptions to sovereign immunity, opening up the door for suits like Andrews’. His particular case stemmed from the Arkansas Minimum Wage Act, on which the justices of the court ruled last week.
Originally, the circuit court, the first court to hear the Andrew’s case, declined the request leaving the college to appeal to the Arkansas Supreme Court. In the appeal, the Supreme Court found the laws to be incompatible with the state’s constitution and dismissed the suit entirely.
Governor Asa Hutchinson commended the ruling and assured citizens that there are other ways to hold the state accountable, particularly the state’s Arkansas Claims Commission, which was created in 1955.