The Arkansas Supreme Court on Thursday dismissed claims brought against Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge in a lawsuit that challenged Rutledge’s spending of taxpayer money on TV commercials and legal filings in out-of-state federal litigation.
The court’s opinion concluded that the attorney general has sovereign immunity and cannot be enjoined because plaintiffs failed to show Rutledge’s acts were beyond her legal power. The court also said Rutledge, as an individual, is entitled to statutory immunity because plaintiffs failed to show she acted maliciously.
Both claims for injunctive relief were reversed and dismissed by the court.
In addition, the opinion said the official capacity claim for illegal exaction is not subject to sovereign or statutory immunity. “We therefore dismiss this part of the appeal because it falls outside our appellate jurisdiction on interlocutory review,” Justice Rhonda Wood wrote.
An illegal-exaction claim brought against Rutledge in her official capacity remains the sole surviving claim upon remand.
“Still, this is not because we have found the claim to have merit but because we cannot evaluate merits at this point,” Wood said in the opinion. “Further, the Attorney General’s absolute immunity motion remains outstanding.”
Rutledge said in a news release that she applauded the decision.
“While I am pleased as Arkansas’s chief legal officer that the Supreme Court rejected this frivolous stunt of a lawsuit by my political opponents, I am frustrated that my office was forced to spend precious resources defending our lawful duty to carry out our statutory job responsibilities,” Rutledge said. “… The Supreme Court’s decision has major implications for every officeholder in the state, and I’m proud of my team for this victory.”
A group of Arkansas taxpayers, most of them from Little Rock, claimed in the lawsuit that Rutledge has abused her authority — and illegally spent tax money in doing so — to promote her political ambitions. Rutledge is running for lieutenant governor.
Richard Mays, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said the court’s majority opinion addressed the issue of whether Arkansas’ attorney general has the authority to file lawsuits in the name of the state over any subject — and in whatever court — the attorney general wishes.
“We interpreted Arkansas law to say that the attorney general is restricted to the filing of litigation that a state official or agency requests be filed,” Mays said. “In its opinion, the court held that the statute that we relied upon did not impose such limits on the authority of the attorney general.”
Mays noted that the attorney general’s use of the office’s power to file lawsuits or take other actions in the name of the state has been contentious for many years.
“It did not begin with Mrs. Rutledge, although she has raised it to an unprecedented level,” Mays said. “It has been raised frequently by the General Assembly, but while they have complained about it, nothing has been done by the Legislature to rein in the use of the office for blatantly political purposes. It needed to be decided.”
According to the lawsuit, the plaintiffs — Elaine Dumas, Pratt Cates Remmel Jr., Gale Stewart and Jackie Simpson of Little Rock; Michael Dougan of Jonesboro; Glen Hooks of North Little Rock; Robert Leflar of Fayetteville; and Harvey Joe Sanner of Des Arc — generally objected to decisions Rutledge has made while in office.
The group said Rutledge filed briefs in national litigation “notwithstanding the absence of credible facts or legal precedence [sic] to support the claims … and without consult[ing]” the governor or other state agency leaders.
Examples cited by the plaintiffs include the National Rifle Association’s bankruptcy case in Texas federal court; a lawsuit filed in federal court in New York over the NRA’s nonprofit status; and a request to intervene in an original action in the U.S. Supreme Court regarding the 2020 presidential election. Plaintiffs said the filings did not involve any state interests and were made only to further Rutledge’s political ends.
The plaintiffs alleged Rutledge spent taxpayer money on television and radio advertisements about consumer education that constituted an illegal exaction under the Arkansas Constitution and exceeded her statutory authority.
Lastly, the plaintiffs accused Rutledge of exceeding her duties and committing an illegal exaction by engaging in partisan activities, such as serving as a national co-chair of “Lawyers for Trump!” and elevating political causes through social media.
“Her activities and highly partisan statements, tweets, and media postings have clearly indicated that … Rutledge is an Attorney General who represents only those who agree with her political view points,” the lawsuit stated.
Plaintiffs asked the circuit court for an injunction against Rutledge to prohibit further actions that they say exceeded her authority and a monetary judgment for an illegal exaction ordering repayment to the state treasury.
Rutledge argued that since the attorney general position was established by the Arkansas Constitution, sovereign immunity applies to the position and the attorney general cannot be sued. Further, with her duties established by law, Rutledge’s lawyers asserted that absent proof of wrongdoing, the courts could not tell the attorney general how to operate and that the only people who can put restrictions on the authority of the position are legislators, who write the law, and voters, who decide who holds the office.
Rutledge filed a motion to dismiss and raised three defenses relevant to the interlocutory appeal: absolute immunity; sovereign immunity and statutory immunity. The motion also argued the complaint failed to state facts that would entitle plaintiffs to relief. Lastly, the motion argued the political questions doctrine barred the lawsuit.
The circuit court denied the motion to dismiss and addressed only two of the immunity defenses.
Two lower court judges who presided over the year-old litigation — Pulaski County Circuit Court judges Alice Gray and Chip Welch — rejected Rutledge’s efforts to dismiss the suit and ruled the plaintiffs had made a strong enough case to take the litigation to trial.
Welch rejected Rutledge’s claims of immunity in September, and the case was brought before the high court on an appeal by Rutledge. But the circuit court never ruled on absolute immunity or the political-questions doctrine.
The Supreme Court said a lawsuit against a state official for injunctive relief can overcome sovereign immunity if the suit adequately pleads the official acted illegally, unconstitutionally, or ultra vires, but the court said plaintiffs failed to present sufficient facts to overcome sovereign immunity on this issue.
“None of the facts and legal allegations established that the Attorney General exceeded any legal authority,” Wood said in the opinion.
Plaintiffs also brought an illegal-exaction claim against Rutledge in her individual capacity and demanded that she be ordered to repay the state treasury. Rutledge argued statutory or “qualified” immunity shields her from illegal-exaction lawsuits for acts that occur within the course and scope of employment.
“Again the circuit court should have summarily dismissed the individual-capacity claims as plaintiffs failed to meet their pleading burden to surmount statutory immunity,” Wood said in the opinion.
The state Supreme Court determined that since the circuit court failed to rule on absolute immunity, it was not able to dismiss the illegal-exaction claim because it was not appealable.
Justice Robin Wynne said in the opinion that he concurred with the majority but dissented when it came to statutory immunity.
“I do not assess whether the injunctive-relief claim has any merit,” Wynne said. “I merely conclude that the Attorney General is not immune from suit on this claim.”