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Burned by the Court

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Quote (and hypocrite) of the week:

"Brandt supports creating more Pre-K and early childhood education opportunities for our kids."

— From a Facebook post on the "Brandt Smith for Arkansas State Representative District 58" page. In a videotaped August debate in Jonesboro, Rep. Smith (R-Jonesboro) derided Democratic challenger Nate Looney for his strong pre-K platform. Among other things, Smith said pre-K was a waste of money that "offset family responsibilities."

Burned by the Court

On Thursday, Oct. 27, after over 140,000 early votes had been cast statewide, the Arkansas Supreme Court killed Issue 7, the initiated act to allow medical marijuana. The court said the Arkansas Medical Cannabis Act was disqualified due to deficiencies in signature gathering; votes on it will not be counted. Issue 6, the constitutional amendment that would allow medical marijuana, remains on the ballot. An attorney for the Issue 7 campaign has requested a rehearing, but it's a longshot that the court will reverse itself.

The lawsuit challenging the Issue 7 signatures was brought by Kara Benca, a Little Rock lawyer and self-described supporter of decriminalizing marijuana. Issue 7 supporters noted that Benca's complaint relied on information developed by backers of Issue 6. Nonetheless, the campaign for Issue 7 has said voters should now vote "yes" on Issue 6 (and also 7, just in case the rehearing is successful).

In a 5-2 decision, the Supreme Court disallowed more than 12,000 signatures collected by Issue 7 canvassers, enough to leave the petition drive 2,465 signatures short of the 67,887 needed. That was a departure from the findings of the special master the court assigned to the case, retired judge John Robbins, who said most of the signatures challenged by Benca were acceptable. Two justices (Chief Justice Howard Brill and Associate Justice Paul Danielson) dissented from the majority opinion.

Benca's arguments were about technical compliance with strict new laws on canvassing requirements passed by the state legislature. The largest portion of disqualified signatures related to rules on background checks for paid canvassers. Issue 7 relied heavily on volunteers who were to be paid only if money became available (it didn't). Nonetheless, the court said the law interpreted "paid canvassers" to include those with whom an agreement existed to pay money.

But Issue 6 backers may have shot themselves in the foot with their too-clever bid to undo their rival. For one thing, many Issue 7 supporters who early-voted before the court's decision didn't vote for 6 — but likely would have cast their votes for both measures if they'd known 7 was about to be kicked off the ballot. And second, the fact that the backers of Issue 6 were partly responsible for killing 7 has so enraged some diehard Issue 7 advocates that they're now saying they won't support 6 under any circumstances.

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Failure to protect

A former foster parent and truck driver from Van Buren pleaded guilty last week to federal charges related to his transportation of at least five children across state lines to commit rape or sexual assault; a number of the victims were placed in his home by the state Department of Human Services in the early 2000s. The crimes of Clarence Garretson, 65, came to light only when a girl stepped forward earlier this year to report that Garretson had raped her on a cross-country trip in 2014, when she was 10. The FBI investigation that followed uncovered the other victims. According to court documents, DHS investigated Garretson following allegations of sexual abuse, and the agency closed his home to foster children in 2004 — but it remained an adoptive home until 2015. DHS has said it can't comment on the case due to confidentiality laws.

Suhl sentenced

Ted Suhl, the Northeast Arkansas businessman who once operated the behavioral health facility for children known as the Lord's Ranch, was sentenced to seven years in federal prison and ordered to pay a $200,000 fine in the court of U.S. District Judge Billy Roy Wilson. This summer, a jury found Suhl guilty on four federal counts stemming from his under-the-table payments to a top-level state DHS administrator and former legislator, Steven Jones. (DHS handled the Medicaid reimbursements that provided the bulk of revenue for Suhl's companies.) Suhl's lawyers plan to appeal.

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