Attorney General Dustin McDaniel said in an opinion today that the law is conflicted on how to proceed to fill the House District 24 seat in Hot Springs, where Republican Keith Crass was elected following his sudden death.
One section of the Constitution says a current officeholder stays in office until the next election under such a scenario. But the current occupant, Rick Saunders, is constitutionally term-limited. The opinion holds that the holdover provision should take precedence over term limits.
Republicans have been hoping to make political hay out of such a decision in the case because it favors the current Democratic officeholder. (They probably recognized the law favors this opinion more than partisan politics.) McDaniel, in turn, anticipated that criticism with this:
Attorney General Dustin McDaniel issued the following statement related to Attorney General's Opinion 2010-145, which was released today:
"As always, it is the policy of this office not to comment on opinions, as we allow opinions to speak for themselves. However, in this case, I think it is important to speak about what should happen next.
"Although Rep. Saunders may be legally eligible for an additional term as a hold-over officeholder, I for one do not think that would be in the best interests of the people of District 24. Rep. Saunders and I have spoken, and I have expressed my belief that he should resign in order to create a vacancy, and thus allow for a special election to be called.
"In keeping with his long-standing sense of duty and public service, Rep. Saunders has indicated to me that he is strongly considering doing just that. Of course, the ultimate decision will be up to Rep. Saunders."
Gov. Mike Beebe also issued a statement:
"The Attorney General's opinion indicates that there is no immediate action my office can take in this matter. I have spoken to Representative Saunders, and will defer to him for the time being to make any announcement about his plans before commenting further. Rick has served his district honorably and I'm sure he'll make the right decision for his constituents. If a vacancy occurs, my office will stand ready to initiate special-election proceedings."
A special election before the end of Saunders' term would allow the winner to "holdover" into the regular term of office.
County Judge Larry Williams was beaten badly by Crass in the election. It wasn't a good year for Democrats in Garland County. It's not clear if he'd run again should an election be called. I'm asking around about a potential Republican candidate.
PS — This effort to rush Saunders out of office by Democrats and Republicans alike is a little unseemly. He was elected to serve a full term. The Republican blog effort to demonize Saunders for doing what voters elected him to do is a bit hypocritical, particularly as they are trying to throw out a duly elected Democratic sheriff in Stone County on a technicality. Ah, but that's different. Their guy stays in there.