Arkansas: will legislature in 2015 try a repeat of 2013 efforts to strip Supreme Court of rulemaking power in civil cases?

Efforts originally started in 2013 to strip the Arkansas Supreme Court of its rulemaking power are once again making their way into the 2015 legislative session after having skipped over the 2014 budget-only session.

SJR 1, prefiled for 2015 and authored by the lead sponsor of the main 2013 bill, is a “placeholder” bill with no text but a subtitle and description that parallels the 2013 bill.

AN AMENDMENT TO THE ARKANSAS CONSTITUTION CONCERNING CIVIL CLAIMS AND COURT PROCEDURES

The purpose of this joint resolution is to propose an amendment to the Arkansas Constitution concerning civil claims and court procedures

First, some background. Arkansas in November 2000 rewrote their state’s judiciary article (Amendment 80) and in so doing placed in the hands of the state’s supreme court the power to

prescribe the rules of pleading, practice and procedure for all courts; provided these rules shall not abridge, enlarge or modify any substantive right and shall preserve the right of trial by jury as declared in this Constitution. (Amendment 80, Section 3)

That exclusive vesting in the court of the power to set such rules, practices, and procedures was cited by the state’s supreme court in 2013 when it struck down a 2003 tort reform law (news reports here).

In 2013, legislative angst at the supreme court’s decision lead to the introduction of a series of constitutional amendments that would have removed the supreme court’s rulemaking power outright, made it subject to legislative approval/disapproval, or limited it in the area of civil litigation/evidence (my coverage of those efforts discussed here and here).

One interesting element was a draft plan circulated in the House at the time to could have tied merit selection for appellate judges to the supreme court’s losing its rule making power (discussed here). Due to a provision in Amendment 80 the change to a merit selection system would require only a legislative vote and would not require voter approval.

The Arkansas Supreme Court, meanwhile, appointed a special task force to examine the issue in August 2013 (order) in response to the efforts

The extended debate in the recent session of the Arkansas General Assembly over both the substance of court rules and changes to this court’s constitutional power and authority to promulgate those rules, coupled with the debate surrounding recent cases involving issues of damages and liability in civil litigation, has revealed the need for review and/or revision of some sections of the Arkansas Rules of Civil Procedure.