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Arkansas Supreme Court reverses ruling that struck state law banning mask mandates

A KN95 mask and a surgical mask.
Photo illustration by Max Posner/NPR
A KN95 mask and a surgical mask.

The Arkansas Supreme Court on Thursday overturned a lower court’s decision to strike down Arkansas’ prohibition on government mask mandates.

Thursday’s order tossed Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox’s 2021 ruling on procedural grounds, and it did not contemplate the merits of the arguments in the case.

Fox’s ruling had struck down Act 1002 of 2021, which prohibited government entities, such as cities and school districts, from requiring individuals to wear face coverings during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The impact of the High Court’s ruling is minimal because government-imposed mask mandates have gone away, but Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Attorney General Tim Griffin celebrated nonetheless.

“The Arkansas Supreme Court’s decision today is a promising first step in upholding the rule of law,” Sanders said in a statement. “I promised that when I was elected, Arkansas would not have mask or COVID-19 vaccine mandates and we would not shut down churches and schools because we believe in personal freedom and responsibility. In Arkansas, government will never loom larger than liberty in our lives. Protecting Arkansans and defending their freedoms is my top priority.”

Griffin said Thursday’s ruling means that Act 1002 will no longer be enjoined, but Tom Mars, an attorney who represented parents who sued the state over the law, said an earlier injunction still bars the law’s enforcement.

“I am pleased with today’s decision from the Arkansas Supreme Court,” Griffin said in a statement. “As a result of today’s decision and the Arkansas Supreme Court’s prior decision on the Preliminary Injunction, once the Supreme Court mandate is issued, there will no longer be any injunctions, permanent or preliminary, in effect. I remain committed to defending the constitutionality of the ban on mask mandates. This is an important victory.”

The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that Fox erred by entering a final order in the case while the state was appealing his decision to block enforcement of the mask-mandate ban while the lawsuit was being litigated.

“The matter at issue in the final order — whether Act 1002 of 2021 is constitutional — is not independent of, or collateral or supplemental to, the matter under review in the interlocutory appeal,” Associate Justice Robin Wynne wrote for the majority. “Both the preliminary injunction and the final order address the constitutionality of Act 1002. Therefore, the circuit court lacked jurisdiction to enter the final order while the interlocutory appeal was pending.”

Interestingly, the High Court dismissed that appeal last year on the basis that it was moot because a final order had been entered in the case.

In addition to the parents of schoolchildren, Pulaski County, the Little Rock School District and the Marion School District sued the state over Act 1002, claiming it exceeded the state Legislature’s authority.

Then-Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed Act 1002 into law, but he later said he regretted it, arguing in court that masking decisions should be left to local government entities.

Sanders last week reversed the governor’s office’s official position.

Deputy Editor of Arkansas Advocate, which is part of States Newsroom, a national nonprofit news organization, supported by grants and a coalition of donors and readers. The Advocate retains full editorial independence.