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Hot check suit dismissed

Also, state tops for rural children on Medicaid and Mark Martin vs. Legislative Audit.


Hot check court lawsuit dismissed

A federal judge dismissed a lawsuit last week over the hot check division of Sherwood District Court, which attorneys for the plaintiffs said operated as an unconstitutional "debtor's prison" that trapped poor defendants on a treadmill of debt and incarceration for years — and, in some cases, decades.

The lawsuit had named as defendants the city of Sherwood, Pulaski County, Judge Milas "Butch" Hale III and Pulaski County Prosecuting Attorney Larry Jegley.

In a four-page order, U.S. District Judge James M. Moody Jr. dismissed the lawsuit without prejudice. In January, Federal Magistrate Joe J. Volpe had recommended the case be dismissed, citing the Younger abstention doctrine. Named for the 1971 case Younger v. Harris, the Younger doctrine prohibits federal courts from hearing civil suits brought by people who are currently being prosecuted in state court for reasons related to the claims in their federal civil suit. Several of the plaintiffs in the civil suit against Sherwood are still under the supervision of that court for penalties and fines related to their hot checks.

The ACLU of Arkansas, which had been representing the plaintiffs, said it was analyzing the ruling and considering its next step.

State tops in percentage of rural children on Medicaid

Almost two-thirds of children in Arkansas's small towns and rural areas receive health care coverage through Medicaid, the highest percentage of any state in the nation, according to a report by researchers at Georgetown University and the University of North Carolina.

The divide between Medicaid coverage of rural and urban populations is starker in Arkansas than nationally. Among children in nonmetropolitan counties in Arkansas, 61 percent have Medicaid, compared to 46 percent of children in metropolitan counties.

The findings underscore both Arkansas's success at insuring a relatively large percentage of its population in recent decades — especially children — and the vulnerability of those gains to proposed cuts to Medicaid. The American Health Care Act, the Republican-sponsored bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in May to replace the Affordable Care Act, would cap federal Medicaid spending, and the Trump administration's proposed budget includes further reductions to Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program. (This reporting is courtesy of the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network, an independent, nonpartisan news project dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans.)

Martin: 'Ledge isn't the boss of me!'

The Legislative Audit released an audit last week that questioned Secretary of State Mark Martin's charging a 2015 trip he and a deputy, now Washington County Judge Joseph Wood, took to Ghana to state taxpayers. Martin and Wood joined the Arkansas agriculture secretary on a trade mission.

The audit put it succinctly:

"The duties of the Arkansas Secretary of State are specified in the Arkansas Constitution and other applicable laws and include overseeing election laws, including candidate filings and ballot initiatives; registering businesses; and keeping up the Capitol grounds. The purpose of the USDA trip, costing $8,380, does not appear to be within the scope of these duties."

In response, the secretary of state's office contended that the legislative branch, in auditing the travel of the secretary of state, was violating the Separation of Powers clause in the U.S. Constitution. Frank Arey, counsel for Legislative Audit, said in response, "There is no legitimate question that audit's travel finding is a valid exercise of legislative oversight, both as a matter of law and a matter of precedent."

New ABC director

Governor Hutchinson named Mary Robin Casteel director of the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Division, which now has medical marijuana regulation among its duties. He named Casteel interim director in May after Bud Roberts departed for unannounced reasons (though it was believed to have been at the governor's encouragement). Casteel had made $73,000 as staff attorney and Roberts made about $89,000 as ABC director. She received a pay raise on her elevation to interim director and now will move to $88,986.

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