Attorney General Leslie Rutledge said Friday that she will appeal a Pulaski County circuit judge’s ruling that temporarily bars authorities from enforcing a state law banning mask mandates by most state and governmental entities, including public schools.
Meanwhile, legislative leaders announced Friday they have retained a Little Rock law firm to represent them.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Tuesday that he would retain legal counsel to represent him in the lawsuit in which he is a defendant.
Rutledge said in a news release: “I will appeal the decision of Judge [Tim] Fox, which blocked Act 1002 from going into effect.
"For nearly seven years, I have always exercised my constitutional duty to represent the state of Arkansas and will continue to wholeheartedly defend state laws to protect Arkansans of all ages,” the Republican attorney general said.
House Speaker Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, and Senate President Pro Tempore Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, said “Today we jointly retained the law firm of Dover Dixon Horne, PLLC to represent us in our official capacities as the leaders of the Arkansas General Assembly in the pending litigation.
"We have conferred with the Attorney General and her staff as we evaluated how best to proceed. We appreciate their representation of us to this point. However, given the number of parties and the potential for multiple conflicts, we believe our interests in this case are best served through retaining separate counsel,” they said in a news release.
"While we understand there are many different opinions as to the specific legislation at issue, the important role of the legislative branch must be preserved among our three, separate but equal, branches of government,” Shepherd and Hickey said.
Hickey declined in an interview to say whether he disagrees with Rutledge’s decision to appeal Fox’s ruling.
Pulaski County residents Veronica McClane and Ashley Simmons, who are parents of children too young to be vaccinated, challenged Act 1002 of 2021 in the lawsuit in Pulaski County Circuit Court. Their suit was joined by the Little Rock and Marion school districts, along with Pulaski County’s County Judge Barry Hyde and Sheriff Eric Higgins. Hyde and Higgins are Democrats.
Hutchinson was named in the suit in his official capacity, along with House Speaker Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, and Senate President Pro Tempore Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana.
Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox ruled a week ago that the face-covering ban in Act 1002 appears to be illegal because the law discriminates against public school children, usurps judicial authority, limits gubernatorial emergency powers and infringes on the power of county officials — all constitutional violations, the judge said.
Fox’s ruling was issued hours after the Republican-dominated General Assembly ended a three-day special session called by Hutchinson, who hoped lawmakers would change Act 1002 to allow school boards to decide whether to require students under age 12, who are ineligible to be vaccinated for covid-19, to wear masks. The legislation never got out of committee.
Hutchinson, who recently said he regrets signing Act 1002, said Friday his goal had been accomplished not by the Legislature, but by Fox, who issued a preliminary injunction blocking the state from enforcing the law’s ban on mask mandates. He praised Fox’s decision, calling it limited, well-reasoned and constitutionally based.
On March 30, Hutchinson announced that he was lifting the state’s mask mandate, which he imposed in 2020 in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Fox’s order is temporary, lasting until a full trial can be held on the legality of Act 1002. That proceeding has not been scheduled, but Fox said he wants to expedite it, so the Arkansas Supreme Court can make the final ruling on the inevitable appeal.
Read Saturday's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette for full details.