The Arkansas Supreme Court ruled Thursday that Secretary of State John Thurston’s office must count signatures collected by a group wanting to repeal a state law regarding optometrists’ scope of practice.
Thurston ruled in July that Safe Surgery Arkansas (SSA) did not properly submit paperwork related to petition gatherers under a new state law that sets requirements prior to signature collections. Subsequently, he disqualified some of the signatures turned in by the group under the guise of Act 376, a new state law that requires sworn statements for ballot initiatives to be provided to the Secretary of State’s office before canvassing begins. SSA said Act 376’s emergency clause was “defective” and shouldn’t apply to its signed petitions.
The law SSA is seeking to overturn – Act 576 of 2019 – allows optometrists to perform limited eye surgeries. The legislature approved the measure in the regular session earlier this year. Safe Surgery Arkansas represents the state’s ophthalmologists who opposed the new law and were pushing for the ballot referendum. Arkansans for Healthy Eyes, which intervened in the case, represents the state’s optometrists.
"Because we agree with SSA’s argument that Act 376’s emergency clause was defective, we do not reach SSA’s arguments regarding Act 376’s constitutionality," a majority court opinion stated. "We grant SSA’s mandamus petition insofar as its seeks to have its referendum-related filings, including the signature pages, addressed pursuant to the pre-Act 376 framework."
With the high court’s ruling, signatures will be counted by the Secretary of State’s office to determine if SSA’s proposal to overturn Act 576, the optometrists’ expanded scope of services law.
“We are reviewing today’s decision by the Arkansas Supreme Court concerning the effectiveness of Act 376, and we’re considering possible legal options in light of the fact the Court applied Act 376 as an immediately effective statute in a case last May (Arkansas True Grass v. Rutledge, 2019 Ark. 165)," said Vicki Farmer, chairperson of the Arkansans for Healthy Eyes Ballot Question Committee. "The Court did not address this precedent in today’s ruling."
"We remain committed to doing what’s right for the tens of thousands of patients across Arkansas, who are counting on Act 579 to receive better access to quality eye care," said Farmer. "We are pleased that the Supreme Court has ordered the Secretary of State’s office to count the signatures of registered voters who believe eye surgery should be conducted by medical doctors with surgical training. We are glad to move past this unnecessary hurdle and delay, and we look forward to having the voice of Arkansas voters heard next November," said Alex Gray, attorney for Safe Surgery Arkansas.