In a ruling today that will likely please only Second Amendment advocates and the ghost of Warren Zevon, the Arkansas Supreme Court held that lawyers are entitled to carry guns into courthouses — but not courtrooms, at least not yet — around the state.

The opinion, written by Justice Shawn Womack, disagreed with a Pulaski County Circuit Court’s decision that lawyers were barred from carrying firearms into Arkansas courthouses under Amendment 80 to the Arkansas Constitution. Section three of Amendment 80 gives the Arkansas Supreme Court superintending control over practice and procedural rules state courts, and the circuit court interpreted the amendment to mean guns were prohibited in courtrooms and courthouses until the Supreme Court said otherwise.

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On appeal, the justices found the appellants — lawyers Chris Corbitt, Robert Steinbuch, and Ben Motal, on behalf of all others similarly situated — had abandoned the part of their case that dealt with taking guns into courtrooms, but the issue of lawyers bringing guns into courthouses generally was preserved for the court’s review.

After ruling Corbitt procedurally barred from bringing this case based on an earlier case Corbitt tried and lost on the same issue, the court nevertheless found the remaining appellants properly before the court so the merits could be reached. Womack wrote (emphasis added):

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In interpreting the language of the statute in parts relevant to the remaining issues in this appeal, it unequivocally permits certain individuals, including 1) law enforcement officers, 2) bailiffs, and 3) officers of the court, to possess handguns in courthouses within the state.  First, each word in a statute must be given significance and meaning.  Here, the inclusion of the term “officer of the court” alongside law enforcement officers and bailiffs suggests a deliberate intent by the legislature to afford individuals falling within this category the privilege of possessing handguns in court settings.  Next, it is important to emphasize that the term “other” serves as  a determiner in this case.  If the drafters had meant for the phrase “authorized by the court” to apply to each item, they would have left out the word “other.”  As a result, attorneys, as officers of the court, are recognized under the statute as individuals authorized to possess handguns in courthouses within the state.

Because the appellants had abandoned their argument with respect to bringing guns into courtrooms, Womack said, “a decision on a challenge to the courtroom provision will be considered when it is before the court, and we will not sua sponte address it now.” (“Sua sponte” is Latin, and means “to take something up voluntarily.”)

Justice Karen Baker, dissenting from the part of the decision that allowed lawyers to bring guns into courthouses, called the majority’s hair-splitting between courthouses and courtrooms “a distinction without a difference.” Rather, Baker said, the issue should be decided under Amendment 80, since the conducting of trials is a procedural matter and the Supreme Court has control over all procedural rules. Because the Legislature cannot limit or amend Amendment 80 by statute, Baker said, statute language adopted by the Legislature does not dictate whether guns are allowed in courtrooms, and she would have affirmed the lower court’s decision based on that reasoning.

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Baker’s dissent notwithstanding, Womack’s majority opinion is unsurprising in light of his earlier statements in a related case. Dissenting from the court’s earlier dismissal of a similar case brought by Corbitt, Womack devoted multiple paragraphs to the changes in the state’s gun laws with respect to guns in courthouses and courtrooms, and he was explicit in his belief that Amendment 80 did not change this analysis. He even managed to cite himself multiple times in his explanation:

Moreover, insofar as the county relies on Amendment 80, section 3, that provision commands the opposite result the county seeks. Although the constitution allows this court to establish rules concerning court practices and procedures, court rules “shall not abridge, enlarge or modify any substantive right.” Ark. Const. amend. 80, § 3. Substantive rights arise from substantive law, which creates, defines, and regulates the rights, duties, and powers of the parties; i.e., substantive rights are rights of substance rather than form. Edwards v. Thomas, 2021 Ark. 140, at 13, 625 S.W.3d 226, 233 (Womack, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part).

 

It is not our role to second-guess a substantive policy determination of the General Assembly, which is exactly what section 5-73-122(b) is. See id. at 9, 625 S.W3d at 231 (Womack, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part). Section 5-73-122(b) unequivocally  allows “officers of the court,” i.e., attorneys, to carry handguns into courthouses. The General Assembly’s decision to vest attorneys-among others-with the ability to carry a handgun in a courthouse is substantive law, not procedural. Thus, not only does Amendment 80 not vest such policymaking with the judiciary, it expressly prohibits the judiciary from acting in areas of substantive rights under the guise of regulating pleading, practice, and procedure. See Venhaus, 285 Ark. at 28, 684 S.W.2d at 255. If this were allowed, then all substantive rights would simply exist until they somehow affected the judiciary, and the court arbitrarily deemed them procedural.

Today’s opinion essentially turns Womack’s dissent from May, which only Justice Barbara Webb joined at the time, into the law of the land. Now it’s just a question of which pistol-packin’ Perry Mason from around the Natural State will accidentally shoot himself or someone else first.

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The court’s opinion in Corbitt, et al., v. Pulaski Co. Circuit Ct, et al., 2024 Ark. 65, is available here.