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Arguments heard in court funding dispute

The cost of operating the Lonoke District Court should be largely the responsibility of the city of Lonoke, an attorney for Lonoke County argued Thursday, Oct. 31, before the state Supreme Court.

An attorney for the city of Lonoke argued that a long-standing agreement between the county and the city requires both to share in the cost of operating the court.

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments but did not immediately issue a ruling in Lonoke County’s appeal of a Lonoke County circuit judge’s ruling that it must provide a portion of the Lonoke District Court’s budget.

Jason Owens, attorney for the county, argued Oct. 31 that the county properly stopped following the agreement because the agreement was voided by a state law that became effective in 2012 and 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.

Owens told the justices that the 1991 agreement contemplated the possibility that it might someday be out of compliance with state law. The agreement contained a provision stating that “in the event the law is amended or voided, then this agreement shall be amended to reflect then-existing statutory law,” he said.

Camille Bennett, attorney for the city, argued that the new law did not void the 1991 agreement. She told the justices that the law includes the phrase “unless otherwise agreed to,” which she said shows that the Legislature contemplated the possibility that cities and counties might have agreements already in place and did not intend to void them.

Bennett argued that if the county were to prevail, the result would be unworkable and unreasonable.

Such a decision “would result in the city operating a court that has $109,000 in expenses and $94,000 in income,” she said.

Owens countered that the court is prohibited from interpreting a law in a way that has an absurd result, but he said there is nothing absurd about a city running in the red.

“Absurd doesn’t mean inequitable,” he said. “It can’t mean inequitable, or hundreds of statutes on the books would have to be overturned on that basis.”

The Supreme Court did not indicate when it would rule.

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