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Arkansas attorney general to appeal rulings in Board of Corrections disputes

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Arkansas attorney general to appeal rulings in Board of Corrections disputes

Feb 20, 2024 | 5:16 pm ET
By Hunter Field
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Arkansas attorney general to appeal rulings in Board of Corrections disputes
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The Pulaski County Courthouse. (Antoinette Grajeda/Arkansas Advocate)

Arkansas’ attorney general on Tuesday filed notices that he plans to appeal both circuit court rulings that favored the state prison board over the state in recent legal disputes.

AG Tim Griffin’s coming appeals to the Arkansas Supreme Court mean the state’s highest court could, for the first time, rule on the reach of the constitutional provision that gives some independence to the Arkansas Board of Corrections as well as the state’s colleges and universities. 

The Supreme Court will also be asked to decide whether the board had authority to hire its own outside attorney to file a lawsuit against Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders and defend it from Griffin’s lawsuit against the board. 

Each case, the AG’s office wrote in its notices of appeal, “involves interpretation and construction of the Arkansas Constitution.”

The particulars are different in each lawsuit, but both spawned out of the Board of Corrections’ ongoing dispute with Sanders, Griffin and former Secretary of Corrections Joe Profiri, whom the board fired last month.

The disagreement started after board members asked for more information before approving Profiri’s plan to add more than 600 temporary inmate beds to existing prison facilities.

The board has since approved the addition of all those beds, and the public fight has become a broader question about who has the ultimate authority over Arkansas’ prison system — the board or the governor?

Both filings by the AG’s office Tuesday were simply notices of appeal. Attorneys for the office will make their legal arguments in briefs filed before the Supreme Court at a later date

The board’s lawsuit

The corrections board filed its lawsuit in December as the rift between its members and Profiri widened. 

At its core, the suit challenged two new state laws — Act 185 of 2023 and Sections 79 and 89 of Act 659 of 2023 — that removed the corrections secretary, director of correction and director of community corrections from beneath the board’s purview.

As Arkansas prison dispute continues, progress on new 3,000-bed facility has been slow

Pulaski County Circuit Judge Patricia James in January blocked the two laws, ruling the board was likely to succeed on the merits of its argument that the acts interfered with the panel’s constitutional authority to oversee the prison system granted by Amendment 33 to the Arkansas Constitution.

James also disqualified a pair of attorneys in the AG’s office from participating in the case out of “an abundance of caution” to avoid the appearance of impropriety because one of the attorneys previously represented the Board of Corrections.

Lastly, James denied the attorney general’s motion to disqualify the attorney retained by the board: Abtin Mehdizadegan and the Hall Booth Smith law firm. 

In its most recent invoice, the firm charged the board $71,552 for legal work in January, but there has been confusion about how the board should proceed with paying the legal bill.

Griffin’s suit against the board

Shortly after the board filed its lawsuit, the attorney general’s office filed a suit of its own against the board over alleged Freedom of Information Act violations and Mehdizadegan’s hiring.

Griffin accused the Board of Corrections of violating the state’s open meetings law when it entered executive session during a pair of December meetings. He claimed the board’s decision to retain Mehdizadegan was illegal because it happened during one of the executive sessions.

Griffin also said the board failed to properly respond to a public records request from his office earlier in December, and he has continued to take issue with the board’s use of private sessions.

Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox gave Griffin and his staff 30 days to work with the Board of Corrections on an agreement with an outside attorney.

Fox tossed the suit last month, ruling Griffin’s office “failed to make material or good faith efforts to initiate” the statutory procedure that allows special counsel to represent state officials and entities.