OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: Nitpicky for a reason

Thank goodness the founding fathers didn't have to run the Bill of Rights past Attorney General Tim Griffin.

I can read his letter to them now, beginning, "Dear Mr. Madison and you other dummies."

He would go on to say he has no idea what those words mean--those in that proposed First Amendment saying, "make no law abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press."

He would point out that Kris Kristofferson plainly told us that "freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose." He would ask how such a spirit of world-weary resignation provides any basis for making constitutional law.

He would add, "Speech? What do you mean by that, anyway? Would the proposed amendment forbid charging a speaker's fee? Press? Are you saying printing presses must be available to all at no cost? Start over, gentlemen. This thing is a mess. You ought to be ashamed of yourselves."

I am making a point about nitpicking, pettiness and haughtiness--Griffin's.

Some well-intended Arkansas folks, most with trained and excellent legal minds--from a far-righter to a center-leftist to a gleeful rabble-rouser--have now sent to Griffin's office, as required by state law, two versions of their proposed state constitutional amendment for the November ballot.

They are allied only in their commitment to an open and transparent government. They look to make constitutional law of the state freedom-of-information statute to keep the secretively almighty Sarah Sanders from gutting it with bills submitted to a generally cowering Legislature.

I am confident their first version was all right. I am more certain that the second version--the first Griffin-directed rewrite--addressed satisfactorily what the attorney general complained about in the first.

Yet he rejected the second as well. This time he also talked down to the petitioners.

He wrote to them that the problem with their second set of proposed popular names and their proposed ballot presentation of their amendment was that portions didn't mesh with the full and more detailed text.

He said he'd explained that problem to them plainly after the first version, but the petitioners did not heed him. He said he couldn't do their work for them, because he is specifically authorized only to pass judgment on the accuracy and sufficiency of the popular name and ballot title--to make sure they aren't too-cleverly phrased to mislead voters--not to write the thing himself.

It's good that Griffin can't write the proposal himself. If you let him compose constitutional phrasing on open government, he'd likely come back in a spirit of clarity with "Sarah may do whatever the heck she wants and it's no blogger's business."

The petitioners were taken aback at Griffin's tone. It scolded them, insulted them personally and accused them falsely of being unresponsive to previous editing. Griffin found responsiveness he disagreed with to be unresponsiveness.

Lawyers are trained to disagree professionally on behalf of competing and often hostile clients, but never to be insulting in their formal pleadings.

They instantly sent a third version. They chose to address Griffin's directive that they needed to import precedent if they were to require the Legislature to refer to the people any law it makes that might reduce the level of openness and transparency in the amendment. They decided to address that merely by saying that any bill passed that changed the amendment, period, even making transparency stronger, would have to be referred. They hadn't wanted to trouble legislators to that extent in the rare event legislators did a good thing.

I'm not sure they thought that would satisfy Griffin. They have come to suspect ever more strongly that he's messing with them.

They wonder if he's trying to force them to sue him with a direct petition to the Arkansas Supreme Court--either because he knows the Supreme Court is Republican and has his and Sarah's backs, or because litigation would take up valuable time that the effort needs to collect signatures, or because, even if he somehow should lose before the Republican Supreme Court, he could demonstrate to Sarah that he did everything he could to protect her right to be the secret-keeping ruler of Arkansas.

At any rate, the proponents have decided to sue by direct petition to the Supreme Court--both for unfairly delaying them and on broader grounds perhaps to include that the state Constitution, in Article 5, specifically authorizes the people to engage in legislating directly and Griffin violates the separation of powers doctrine by obstructing their exercise of that right.

Through it all, I am making an educated assumption, based on evidence both prima facie and circumstantial, that Sanders and Griffin don't want a freedom-of-information amendment in the state Constitution.

I'm guessing that the people would pass a government-transparency amendment. And I'm pretty sure Sanders and Griffin know that.

John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at [email protected]. Read his @johnbrummett feed on X, formerly Twitter.

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