- Associated Press - Thursday, October 9, 2014

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - A lawyer for the group challenging a proposed constitutional amendment that would legalize alcohol sales statewide told Arkansas’ highest court Thursday that the secretary of state should have opened his office on Independence Day to process petitions and avoid missing a key deadline.

Citizens for Local Rights argues that petitions in support of the measure are invalid because they were accepted the next business day.

Under Arkansas law, proposals must be submitted no later than four months before the general election. Election Day this year is Nov. 4 - making the petition deadline July 4, a Friday. Secretary of State Mark Martin extended the deadline to the next business day, July 7.

“It says what it says, and it speaks for itself,” lawyer Elizabeth Murray told the Arkansas Supreme Court.

Thursday’s hearing concerned the proposal to do away with Arkansas’ checkerboard of 38 “wet” and 37 “dry” counties. Another petition supporting a minimum wage increase also was submitted on July 7; it, too, faces a challenge.

Justices did not say when they might rule. Early voting opens Oct. 20.

When Justice Courtney Hudson Goodson asked Murray whether the measure’s supporters would have been short-changed if the state had imposed a July 3 deadline, Murray told the court that Martin, as a constitutional officer, had the right to set his own hours.

“(He) was not required to close his office on July 4,” she said.

Lawyer Martha Adcock from the attorney general’s office told Goodson that, in previous years under other secretaries of state, Arkansas had extended petition deadlines to the next business day when they fell on July 4.

And, in a parallel, she said, voter registration deadlines are routinely extended.

Arkansas’ elections are always held on Tuesdays and the voter registration deadline is always 30 days ahead, she said. “Thirty days before an election is always a Sunday,” Adcock said. Clerks push the deadline back to the next business day.

Adcock also said imposing an earlier deadline would “impair” the petition process.

Citizens for Local Rights also claims the measure is misleading. It says a provision to strike all conflicting language currently in state law would end restrictions on where liquor sales could occur, particularly near schools or churches.

David Couch, a lawyer representing the petition-gatherers, said legislators and state regulators would retain their authority over where liquor is sold.

Couch also said that Martin’s office published documents saying the petition deadline was July 7 and that it would be improper to change the deadline at this point.

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Follow Kelly P. Kissel on Twitter at www.twitter.com/kisselAP

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