Judge Dismisses Legal Challenge To Safe Surgery Arkansas Effort

Jan 28, 2020

Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen on Tuesday dismissed a challenge to a proposal to reverse Act 579.
Credit PBS

A lawsuit challenging the ballot referendum process has been dismissed by a Pulaski County judge. On Tuesday, Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen dismissed the suit against the Arkansas Secretary of State and Safe Surgery Arkansas, a group supported by the state’s ophthalmologists.

The legal challenge filed by Arkansans for Healthy Eyes, which represents the state’s optometrists, said Safe Surgery Arkansas did not follow the proper petition procedure process. Last Thursday, the Arkansas Supreme Court denied a petition for rehearing of a ruling that allowed Safe Surgery Arkansas to proceed with its efforts to gain ballot access for its proposal to reverse Act 579.

Judge Griffen noted that any challenge to the sufficiency of the referendum petition regarding Act 579 lies solely in the Arkansas Supreme Court. He also noted the legal challenges presented by the plaintiffs in this case, Arkansans for Healthy Eyes, had already been heard by the Supreme Court and a decision was made. That decision required the Secretary of State to count petition signatures gathered by Safe Surgery Arkansas.

Act 579, passed in 2019, expanded optometrists’ scopes of practice and allowed them to perform certain eye surgeries that have been limited to ophthalmologists.

Safe Surgery Arkansas gathered more than 84,000 signatures to place a question on the 2020 ballot that could reverse Act 579. According to the group’s legal counsel, Alex Gray, 64,028 signatures have been counted and verified, but the Secretary of State has not issued a ruling on the matter yet. Only 53,491 signatures are necessary to qualify for the ballot.

Gray said that Judge Griffen’s ruling opens the door for his group’s pursuit of overturning Act 579.

"Judge Griffen’s dismissal of this lawsuit just a few days after it was filed shows this group is grasping at straws to block Arkansas residents from voting on an issue important to the eye health and safety of all Arkansans," Gray said. "Almost 90 percent of Arkansas voters don’t want non-medical doctors like optometrists performing eye surgeries. We will continue our fight to ensure the people’s voice is heard."

Arkansans for Healthy Eyes also released a statement:

"We’re still weighing our options moving forward," said Vicki Farmer, chairperson for the Arkansans for Healthy Eyes Ballot Question Committee. "The legal issues in this case are complex, but the underlying facts remain simple. The opposition group didn’t follow the law – any law – in its effort to put this measure on the ballot."

Farmer said despite a new law, Act 376, being enacted to govern ballot access, the old rules for filing should apply to Safe Surgery Arkansas’ efforts.

"The Supreme Court says [the] Pre-Act 376 law was in place. That law requires a petition’s ballot title to be certified by the Attorney General before signature gathering begins, and the opposition group never did that, either. There are still a lot of questions surrounding the petition process in this case. We are committed to getting those answered, and to ensuring Act 579- a law that will benefit patients in all parts of the state- remains in place," said Farmer.

KATV’s Marine Glisovic contributed to this report.