Why Supreme Court races matter: Lake View

golden balanceBy Steve Brawner
© 2016 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

How important are the two Arkansas Supreme Court races on your ballot March 1? Two words provide the answer: “Lake View.”

In a case that drug out over 15 years, the Lake View school district, which no longer exists, argued that the state’s school funding system didn’t meet standards set forth by the Arkansas Constitution. The Constitution requires that the state “shall ever maintain a general, suitable and efficient system of free public schools and shall adopt all suitable means to secure to the people the advantages and opportunities of education.” The Lake View district said the state wasn’t doing that because it didn’t fairly serve small, poorer districts like itself. The Supreme Court repeatedly agreed, demanding that the state revamp its system to provide an “adequate” and “equitable” education for all students.

The state complied. Education went from being a local responsibility to being a state one. Hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars were spent improving school facilities. School districts were consolidated. The Legislature ensured that before anything else is funded, schools get their money. In the midst of the Great Recession, when other states were cutting education funding, Arkansas schools always got more, and it’s made a positive difference.

As in years past, members of the House and Senate Education Committees this year will prepare an adequacy report for the full Legislature. The guiding principle will be the same as it’s always been since the Lake View case: How much more must be spent on schools to keep the state out of court? Once the report is done, it likely will be accepted by the rest of the Legislature without a lot of serious debate.

In other words, about 42 percent of the state’s general revenue dollars will be directed largely in obedience to rulings made years ago by Supreme Court justices.

The Lake View case ultimately was about more than just education. Because so much money was dedicated to schools, some tax cuts weren’t even considered. Meanwhile, less remained for other state needs, including health care.

In fact, it’s possible that the Lake View case is one of the reasons why the state has the private option. That’s the program that uses federal Medicaid dollars to purchase private health insurance for lower-income Arkansans. It was created after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states could choose whether or not to use Obamacare dollars to expand their Medicaid populations. A lot of Republican-leaning states said no. Arkansas said yes by creating the private option in 2013.

It’s hugely controversial. Opponents say it’s Obamacare, which it is.

Why does it exist here? Lake View may be one of the reasons. Because so many state dollars were tied up in schools, perhaps Arkansas was a little more willing to accept federal dollars for health care.

The decisions made by Supreme Court justices in the Lake View case have colored every area of state government for much of two decades, and will do so moving forward. That why Supreme Court justice races are so important.

So let’s return to March 1, when voters will have four choices for two slots. In the chief justice’s race, current Associate Justice Courtney Goodson faces Circuit Judge Dan Kemp of Mountain View. Goodson has been an associate justice since she was elected in 2010 (and is now one of four female justices on the seven-person court). She previously served two years on the Arkansas Court of Appeals. Before that, she was a law clerk at the Arkansas Court of Appeals from 1997 to 2005. Kemp has served 29 years as a circuit judge and 12 years as a drug court judge. He also served nine years as a municipal court judge.

For associate justice position 5, Circuit Judge Shawn Womack of Mountain Home faces attorney Clark Mason of Little Rock. Womack was elected a circuit judge in 2008. Prior to that, he served 10 years in the Arkansas Legislature, including as chairman of the Joint Budget Committee. Clark Mason is an attorney and former president of the Arkansas Trial Lawyers Association.

By the way, after this election, there will be no justices left on the Court who ruled in the Lake View cases. The issue of school funding – again, 42 percent of the state’s general revenue budget – might come up again. Just saying.

Related: Still want to elect judges?

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