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Court: Lonoke County, city of Lonoke must split cost of funding district court

LITTLE ROCK — Lonoke County must continue paying a portion of the operating costs of the Lonoke District Court, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

In a 5-2 decision, the high court upheld a circuit judge’s ruling that a 1991 settlement agreement requiring the city of Lonoke and the county to share the cost of operating the district court remains in effect. The city had sued the county after the county stopped complying with the agreement, arguing that it was voided by a state law that became effective in 2012.

The law makes cities responsible for paying the operating expenses of district courts, with the exception that counties are required to pay half of the salaries of judges and the chief court clerk. The city and the county had been splitting the court’s total costs, with the proportions based on the proportions of city fines versus county fines paid in the court.

In its majority opinion Thursday, the Supreme Court noted that the 2012 law includes the phrase, “unless otherwise agreed to by the political subdivisions which contribute to the expenses of the district court.”

“This language in the 2012 statute anticipated that there could be or were agreements between a county and a city regarding division of payments. Thus, this new language in the 2012 statute preserved existing agreements between a county and a city,” Justice Josephine Hart wrote in the majority opinion.

The majority overturned the circuit judge on the issue of attorney’s fees, however. The judge had ordered the county to pay the city’s attorney’s fees, but the Supreme Court said there was no statutory authority to support the award.

Justice Karen Baker said in a dissenting opinion that the phrase “unless otherwise agreed” should be interpreted to mean that counties and cities can agree to alternatives to the division of costs set forth in the 2012 law, not that pre-existing agreements are to remain in effect.

“The majority interprets the statute as saying ‘unless previously otherwise agreed,’ an interpretation that is not borne out by the specific language of the statute,” Baker wrote.

Baker agreed with the majority on the issue of attorney’s fees. Justice Courtney Goodson joined in the dissent.

Justice Paul Danielson wrote a separate opinion in which he concurred with the majority but also suggested that the state Legislature revisit the issue.

“I write simply to encourage the General Assembly to re-examine and possibly clarify the verbiage of the statute as it is not necessarily the epitome of clarity,” Danielson wrote.

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