Leader Blues

Friday, December 01, 2006

EDITORIALS>>Lake View not over

No one should have been surprised this week when the Arkansas Supreme Court extended its jurisdiction over the Lake View school case another six months, but the principal parties to this unending nightmare were shocked beyond belief. It is further evidence of the heedlessness that has kept this issue in the courts almost continuously for a quarter-century.
Gov. Huckabee declared that he was “disgusted” by the Supreme Court’s order giving the state (the governor and the legislature) six months to prove that it has finally complied with the state Constitution’s ancient requirement that it provide a suitable and equal educational program for every child in Arkansas.

The governor said the court was “out of control” and “out of compliance.” But he failed to observe that two of the five out-of-control justices were his own appointees. One, a close personal friend, had been his own counsel before he appointed her to the Supreme Court and the other, a friend from his Texarkana days, was appointed to sit only on this case.

Attorney General Mike Beebe, the governor-elect, was only slightly more circumspect than Huckabee in denouncing the court. It was Beebe’s omissions as the state’s attorney that brought the court decision, although the court politely did not single him out. But Beebe and all the other lawyers involved in the case on the state’s side, including the governor’s current counsel, should have known that they had been derelict this year in not supplying the court with the evidence of their compliance.

The Supreme Court found a year ago that the legislature and the governor had failed to follow their own prescription for funding the public schools, adopted into law in 2004, and gave them until yesterday to comply. In the spring, Huckabee called the legislature into session and together they enacted higher appropriations and a few other steps to comply.
Huckabee declared that they had done an adequate job of addressing the needs and so did a few lawmakers. They went home and neither the governor, the legislature nor their attorney, Mr. Beebe, bothered to respond to the court.

Here is what the court’s majority said Thursday: You may well have met the constitutional standards, but we have no way of knowing. This court can act only upon evidence, not media stories or proclamations by the governor and legislators. What exactly did you do and how did it affect the schools’ needs? Beebe complained that the Supreme Court never told his office and the defendants that they had to furnish the court evidence of its work, as it had after the first legislative session that dealt with the school issue. But a second-year law student knows that Supreme Court justices cannot base a ruling upon what each of them hears on television or reads in a newspaper. The court cannot dismiss a grave constitutional case, as Beebe and Huckabee expected, without a sentence of evidence.

So the justices appointed the same masters, two former Supreme Court justices, to ferret out the evidence of just what the legislature and the governor accomplished in the spring and report to the court by May 31 on the actions by the state and the effect they had on the schools.

Beebe and the legislative branch are ordered now to supply the documentation that they should have supplied as a matter of course without having to be told.

Although the court took pains to say that it was not extending its jurisdiction so that it could monitor what the legislature does on education in the regular session that starts next month, it will do so unavoidably.

Under its own timetable, the legislature must address major parts of its compliance plan in January. The state has not yet complied with the court’s order in 2002 that it supply schools, especially the poorest ones, with modern facilities.

The legislature will have nearly $1 billion in surplus funds, and at least a third of that can easily and ought to be set aside for school modernization.

By its own law, the legislature also is obliged to fund fully the needs of education for the next two years before it appropriates a dime of operating money for anything else.

We suspect that it would not be done unless the highest court is looking over the shoulder of the new governor and lawmakers. So the dereliction of the executive and legislative branches in failing to oblige the law with the evidence of what they had done may in the end be a good thing.