LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (KARK) — A Pulaski Co. Circuit Judge ruled Wednesday that Act 1002, the state’s mask mandate ban, was unconstitutional. Previously, he temporarily blocked the law, which paved the way for cities and schools to implement mask mandates.

Judge Tim Fox made the ruling Wednesday. The law banned mask mandates in the state, which were implemented at a state-level early in the pandemic and have been instituted at local levels in various degrees since.

Masks have become a source for political debate as administrators balance Americans’ ideas of freedom with safety amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. When Fox granted the preliminary injunction in August, more than 100 schools in Arkansas implemented mandates. Health leaders have repeatedly said a combination of masks and widespread vaccination is the key to ending the pandemic.

“Frankly, I would be a fan of mandating it [in schools],” said Dr. Robert Hopkins, a Professor of Internal Medicine and Pediatrics at UAMS. “I think it’s all too easy if it’s not a mandate for people to not do it.”

Prof. Robert Steinbuch with the UALR Law School said Wednesday’s ruling does not have a significant impact on how the state has operated since August.

“We have already been living under the ruling from Judge Fox,” Steinbuch said.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) released a statement indicating his support of Judge Fox’s ruling, though he signed Act 1002 into law in his executive role.

“I am pleased with the decision of Judge Fox.  The ruling that Act 1002 is unconstitutional serves as a restraint against the legislative branch and helps reset the correct balance between the branches of government.  The ruling also makes it clear that local school boards have the authority to protect the health of students during this pandemic.  I am in favor of schools and local government having the authority to keep students and their constituents safe as we see another surge in Covid-19 cases.”

Gov. Asa Hutchinson

State Sen. Trent Garner (R) sponsored the bill that became Act 1002. He said he made changes to the legislation at Hutchinson’s request and thought they were on the same page, and he called Hutchinson “weak” for his response to Fox.

“What makes me upset is literally thousands of parents have that choice stripped from them, and 10s of thousands of children will be hurt by this,” Garner said.

In documents, Fox accused Attorney General Leslie Rutledge of mishandling the case from the beginning with her decisions on counsel.

“The Attorney General’s failure to recognize an obvious conflict of interest wasted thousands of dollars of Arkansas taxpayers’ monies,” Fox wrote.

In a response, Rutledge’s office said, “The Attorney General is reviewing the trial court’s opinion and will determine next steps.”

The future of whether the state will ever ban mask mandates again remains uncertain, Steinbuch said. Legislators may try to bring it up in future special sessions if called, but the next regular session isn’t soon. Steinbuch said that means the appeals process is likely the next step.

“I fully do expect that Judge Fox’s ruling will be appealed to the supreme court, and I’m not confident his ruling will prevail,” Steinbuch said.