Gov. Hutchinson, Chief Justice spar over vaccinations for court staff

Coronavirus

FILE – In this Jan. 13, 2020, file photo, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson speaks to reporters in Little Rock, Ark. Hutchinson isn’t on the ballot in Tuesday’s election but he’s still a major player in it. The governor has appeared in an ad for fellow Republican Rep. French Hill, who’s in an unexpectedly tight reelection fight. (AP Photo/Andrew Demillo, File)

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – COVID-19 vaccines continue to be administered in Arkansas, but two sides of the state government are disagreeing over just who should be next in line for their doses.

The Arkansas Supreme Court on Thursday issued a ruling categorizing those who work in courts as essential workers to be added to the Phase 1-B vaccination plan.

In the ruling, Chief Justice John Dan Kemp noted that while many court operations have either been modified or suspended over the last year to address pandemic concerns, many court workers, including attorneys, clerks, judges and other staff have “placed themselves in harm’s way for nearly a year, with severe consequences.”

The current Arkansas vaccination plan has workers in the legislative and executive branches listed under “essential workers” set to receive doses, Kemp stated, so he saw it as the duty of his court to define who would be deemed “essential” within the justice system and where those staffers should rank in terms of vaccination priority.

To that end, Kemp ordered a host of roles as being in the Phase 1-B classification and eligible for vaccinations immediately, including:

• Criminal circuit court judges, assistants, reporters and staff

• Juvenile circuit court judges, assistants, reporters and staff

• District court judges, clerks and staff

• State Supreme court clerks and staff

• Court security officers

• All circuit and county clerks and staff

• Court administrative staff who deal with other state officials or the public

• Prosecutors and public defenders and their staffs

• Attorneys with in-person appearances pending in criminal and juvenile circuit court

Jurors scheduled to begin serving after April 30

This order seemed to be met with hesitation by Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who stated that while he appreciated the Supreme Court’s “concern for judges and staff members of the court system and for attorneys whose cases require them to work in person at a courthouse,” he does not believe those individuals should take precedent over others waiting for their vaccinations.

“I appreciate the Supreme Court’s concern for judges and staff members of the court system and for attorneys whose cases require them to work in person at a courthouse. Our schedule for vaccinations takes into account the needs and risk level for all Arkansans, and this group is not yet eligible in the 1B phase. As our allocation of vaccine increases, we will be able to move more quickly, but currently, court employees who don’t otherwise qualify for a shot will have to wait for their eligibility.”

As of Wednesday, Arkansas had received 977,710 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine and administered 622,719 doses.

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