WOODY BASSETT: Against Issue 1

Amendment proposal will alter judical branch

Though I'm a lawyer, I take no offense and laugh at the lawyer jokes I often hear. But it's no laughing or joking matter when a proposal like Issue 1 on the Nov. 6 ballot comes along. The constitutional amendment would irreparably diminish Arkansas's judicial branch of government, dilute the independence of our courts and lead to injustice for many of our citizens who are the most vulnerable among us.

Coming from a family of lawyers and having practiced law myself for 41 years in Arkansas, I have a healthy respect for our state's judicial system. While it's not perfect, for the most part Arkansas's judicial branch serves our state well, so any movement to substantially change it, especially when it's partisan politicians and powerful special interests leading the charge, is of great concern to me. In a power grab by the Arkansas Legislature, the measures contained in Issue 1 would surrender parts of our justice system to politicians and lobbyists, opening the door for them to tilt the scales of justice in favor of wealthy special interests.

A pro-Issue 1 campaign committee named itself "Arkansans for Jobs and Justice," but Issue 1 is about neither jobs nor justice. Backers of Issue 1 have no facts or reliable evidence to prove that passage would draw more doctors to Arkansas or create more jobs of any kind. In an effort to influence the voting public with a derogatory soundbite, this committee's deceptive television ads demonize the Arkansas legal profession by calling us "greedy lawyers," but if proponents of Issue 1 are going to label an entire profession as being greedy, they need to look in the mirror and ask themselves if they aren't the ones with greedy motives. Issue 1 isn't about lawyers. What it's really about is usurping the authority of our state's judiciary by allowing our state Legislature to control and largely take over what is supposed to be a co-equal branch of government.

If approved by the voters, Issue 1 will place an artificial and arbitrary ceiling on the value of human life for every Arkansan by imposing mandatory caps on the amount of compensation a person with a provable claim can recover for non-economic and punitive damages in a civil lawsuit. It's a self-serving and misguided attempt by some to reduce their exposure and cut costs when they are determined to be at fault and thus legally liable to someone else for injuries and damages they caused. Issue 1 would also place a mandatory cap on contingency fees for lawyers, designed to discourage the legal profession from taking certain kinds of cases for people who otherwise can't afford a lawyer. The bottom line is that so-called tort reform is unnecessary in Arkansas because, unlike some other states, we simply don't have a problem with "runaway" jury awards. Let's keep trusting the common sense and collective judgment of local citizens who serve on Arkansas juries and let them decide cases based on the applicable law and the evidence presented.

The most dangerous and purposely hidden part of Issue 1 is the section that undermines the important balance and separation of powers between the judicial and legislative branches of government by removing the rule-making powers of the courts and giving them to the Legislature where they can be changed by improper political pressures rather than in accordance with sound legal principles and due process. It's a sneak attack on the rule of law and would be an open-ended invitation for the Legislature to enact new rules that would restrict access for many Arkansans to our courts. At a time when our Legislature is plagued by corruption and largely beholden to special interests, passage of Issue 1 would be a recipe for trouble and do permanent damage to Arkansas's judicial system.

Defeating Issue 1 will keep politics out of our courts and preserve judicial independence. Defeating Issue 1 will safeguard our individual rights and liberties and ensure that our Seventh Amendment right to a jury trial will not be infringed upon or eroded. Defeating Issue 1 will maintain fair and impartial courts accountable only to the Constitution and the laws -- not to politicians, ideologies or special interests. Defeating Issue 1 will guarantee that every man, woman and child in Arkansas will never be denied their day in court.

If you want good government, then vote against Issue 1. If you believe in the fundamental principle of separation of powers rooted in our Constitution, then reject Issue 1. If you agree our legal system should be open and fair to people from every walk of life, then cast your ballot against Issue 1. If you think those with limited means should have a fair shot at justice in our courts, then vote against Issue 1.

Commentary on 10/18/2018

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