POCAHONTAS, Ark. – A ruling came Tuesday afternoon in the case against Randolph County Clerk Rhonda Blevins and it was not one pro-wet proponents wanted to hear.
Circuit Judge Phil Smith ruled against the pro-wet group’s effort to have a local option election this November.
The ruling issued by Circuit Judge Phil Smith was lengthy. In summary, Smith decided to allow the trial to occur despite the motion to dismiss within the 10 day limitation, even saying the plaintiffs and clerk both were “probably erroneous” in the 10-day cure period.
Smith ruled to support the constitutionality of the local option laws, signing a separate order on the constitutionality of Arkansas Code Annotated 3-8-811(b)(6). He ruled, in short, “the local option statutes are not governed by Article 5, Section 1 of the Arkansas Constitution.”
Pages Being Thrown Out
As ACA 3-8-811 (b)(6) says a “petition part”, or page, containing an out-of-county signature must be entirely thrown out, the judge agreed with Blevins dismissing entire pages.
However, “upon de novo review,” the judge ruled the plaintiffs proved 28 petitioners excluded under violations of the above statute should be counted as valid signatures.
As one of the canvassers, Jason Swann, had not been registered with the clerks office until after he collected 208 signatures, those signatures were rejected by the clerk. The judge ruled this was proper by Blevins, as 3-8-811(b)(3)(A) “plainly” states the sponsor must provide a list of paid canvassers before a petitioner signs the petition, according to Smith.
Smith also ruled 74 signatures were properly struck by the clerk for being notarized by Ariel Pointfield, an employee of the paid canvassing company, on dates prior to the actual dates of petitioners’ signatures. Even though Blevins had allowed pages with corrections, the judge retroactively disallowed all 114 on pages certified by Pointfield.
The judge noted it did not “appear to be isolated mistakes, but rather a pattern of predating stacks of petition forms for later completion.”
“The unfortunate result is that 114 citizens have been deprived of their right to petition the government,” Smith wrote. “…not by some technicality, but by a deliberate attempt to circumvent prudent statutory safeguards on the integrity of the petition process
Plaintiffs successfully argued 16 signatures were rejected for being out of county, while actually being valid. The judge agreed, allowing them.
A forensic handwriting examiner, Dawn Phillips, reviewed 66 pages and found 45 pages contained “common authorship” in the signature and information lines. Eight of those pages contained what was believed to be last name signature similarities, causing the judge to subtract 12 signatures from the count.
The remaining 37 pages contained what the judge called common authorship on other fields, like name or address. The judge ruled 33 signatures from these pages to be non-forgery, common-authorship entries and reduced the tally of valid signatures by that number.
The court found 3,337 valid signatures were petitioned from Randolph County – not enough to allow the local option election to take place November 8.
NEA Report has reached out to Blevins for comment and will update the story here when one is issued.
The chairman of the pro-wet group, Bowlin, said they would need to regroup and consider their options.
“We are obviously disappointed but certainly respect the court’s ruling,” Bowlin said. “The law is fraught with land mines and traps and should be reconsidered by the legislature so that the citizens of this county and throughout the state can access the ballot on this issue in the same manner that other issues are brought up for votes.”
Legal Document Entailing Ruling: Keep Revenue in Randolph County