Columns » Warwick Sabin

Jerked around

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Someone owes you a lot of money but won’t pay up, so you take him to court. The court finds in your favor and orders him to pay, but he still won’t come up with the money. So you go back to the court and it reaffirms its original decision, telling your nemesis that he better settle the debt quickly.

Then the guy goes out and buys a bass boat and a few other nice things for himself before giving you only a portion of what he owes. That’s all he could afford to pay, he claims.

You are understandably outraged, so you return to court to protest, pointing out that the guy bought a bass boat, for Pete’s sake. The other guy’s lawyer argues that the court doesn’t have the right to tell the guy how to spend his money. If he wants to buy a bass boat, he can buy a bass boat.

Of course the judge laughs out loud at such ridiculous reasoning, pointing out that the debtor’s first obligation is to comply with the court’s ruling. Buying a bass boat shows contempt for the court, the judge says, and he orders the other guy to pay you immediately.

You are pleased with the decision, but walking out of court you hear the other guy questioning the court’s power. He says he’ll pay you on his terms, whenever he feels like it.

That’s some jerk, huh? You’d like to belt him something good, wouldn’t you?

Well, his name is Arkansas Legislature and you are our state’s public education system.

If that sounds like an oversimplification of the recent drama surrounding the Lake View school funding case, it’s really not. Last Thursday the Arkansas Supreme Court found, 5-2, that the legislature not only did not comply with the court’s previous directives to make the education system constitutional, it also failed to abide by its own laws.

“Education needs were not funded first, as required by Act 108 of the Second Extraordinary Session of 2003,” the court said in its majority opinion. “Rather, foundation funding aid, as well as categorical funding, were established based upon what funds were available — not by what was needed.”

Translation: Before addressing their overall debt to public education, members of the legislature spent money on other things, including over $50 million on minor local projects. They gave education only what was left after they bought their bass boats.

The court also noted other obvious violations of the law, such as the legislature’s failure to complete an adequacy assessment and its relative indifference to funding facilities improvements. The facts are overwhelming and damning.

Realizing that, the legislature’s defenders are reduced to questioning the court’s authority to review those facts. They are in no hurry to pay their debt, and they resent the court for holding them accountable.

“The Supreme Court probably ventured into ground that they shouldn’t have done,” said House Speaker Bill Stovall. State Rep. Chris Thyer added, “I don’t think the court has the power to dictate to the legislative branch how to spend the state’s money.”

Wrong and wrong. Stovall’s contention is addressed in a concurring opinion by state Supreme Court Justice Tom Glaze, who wrote that Arkansas law and the state constitution specifically allow the court to enforce compliance with its decisions about education funding.

Thyer’s point is moot because the court didn’t tell the legislature exactly how to spend the money — it merely pointed out that it didn’t come close to complying with the mandates of state law and the constitution. The majority opinion acknowledged that the court could not prescribe a specific solution, because that is the province of the legislative and executive branches.

Put yourself back in the shoes of the person who is being shortchanged by the weasel. The court takes a look at your situation and says it is obvious that the guy is going out of his way not to pay you as he is obligated to do. But that is as far as the judge will go. It doesn’t matter to the court where the money comes from as long as you get what you are owed.

The frustrating thing is that if the debtor continues to drag his feet you’ll have to haul him back into court again. After a while you wonder why the guy doesn’t realize that it would be easier for everyone if he quit complaining and just did the responsible thing. Through his foolish pride he is wasting everyone’s time, costing everyone a whole lot of money and undermining the authority of our judicial system. On top of that, in real life our schoolchildren are being denied the opportunities that would result from an adequately funded education system.

Yeah, that’s some jerk all right.

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