A Prairie Grove lawyer whose state contract to represent abused and neglected children was canceled after his state representative reported that he had criticized her efforts to restrict medical treatments for transgender children was ordered reinstated by a federal judge Friday.
Casey Copeland filed a lawsuit June 2 against Marty Sullivan, director of the Arkansas Administrative Office of the Courts, and Stasia Burk McDonald, director of the office’s dependency-neglect attorney ad litem program, which provides lawyers for children.
Copeland’s lawyers, Bettina Brownstein and Johnathan Horton, claimed the evidence showing Sullivan and McDonald violated Copeland’s First Amendment rights was so strong that he should be entitled to an immediate court order reinstating and renewing his contract as well as barring the administrative office from replacing him.
In a ruling from the bench, Chief U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall Jr. ordered the reinstatement of Copeland’s contract that ran from July 1, 2020, until June 30, 2021, and to issue a new contract to run July 1, 2021, through June 30, 2022, noting that the agency had added appellate duties to Copeland’s responsibilities six months before the end of his contract.
“The Court has some familiarity with appeals and they’re not done in a month or two and they’re not done in three months,” Marshall said. “It’s usually nine months to a year from the filing of an appeal and the disposition of an appeal. It seems to be very unlikely the [Administrative Office] would have negotiated a contract in December 2020 for someone to handle work that in the normal course takes more than a year if there was not a sufficiently strong expectation that the underlying contract would be renewed midstream of that.”
Marshall noted that appellate cases are better handled by the same person rather than handing them off from one attorney to another.
In his complaint, Copeland identified Sullivan and McDonald as the two court administrators who made the decision to get rid of him, claiming they had violated his free-speech rights to appease Rep. Charlene Fite, R-Van Buren, who contacted them after receiving an email from Copeland critical of her sponsorship and support for House Bill 1570.
Copeland lives in Fite’s District 80, knows her personally and has communicated with her by email before. In 2018, Copeland ran as a Libertarian candidate for state representative, challenging Fite for the seat she has held since 2012. He polled 10% of the vote to Fite’s 64%.
The agency terminated Copeland’s contract on April 2, ending a nine-year working relationship, without notice, two days after Fite reported that Copeland had emailed her criticizing her sponsorship of House Bill 1570.
The General Assembly passed the measure into law in April as the Arkansas Save Adolescents from Experimentation Act, overriding a veto by Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed suit in late May in federal court to block the law, saying that it would bar doctors from providing children with medically necessary health care. U.S. District Judge James M. Moody Jr. issued a ruling on July 21, blocking the law from implementation just one week before it would have taken effect.
The law bars hormone treatments, puberty blockers and gender-transition surgeries for children. Arkansas was the first state to implement the health care restrictions for children. Human-rights advocates and leading medical associations opposed the law.
On March 30, Copeland sent an email to Fite expressing his displeasure at her sponsorship of the bill.
“Representative Fite,” Copeland’s email read. “I just wanted to say how ashamed I am of you for sponsoring and supporting HB1570. Not only does this bill put lives in danger, it fully illustrates the arrogance of you and your party to think that you have the authority to dictate such personal matters. I truly hope and expect the federal courts will strike down this ridiculous law as soon as possible. Shame on you.”
The email was sent from Copeland’s arcourts.gov email account with his email signature containing his Arkansas Bar number, his position as a child welfare law specialist and attorney ad litem.
That same day, Fite emailed a copy of Copeland’s email to Sullivan who then emailed the copy to three Administrative Office officials, including McDonald, with the message, “This isn’t helpful, at all.”
The following day, McDonald mailed a letter to Copeland informing him that his contract would be terminated as of April 30 and ordering him to provide original copies of all open files, information about upcoming hearings, information on case plan staffings or other meetings and the court calendar for all counties in which he was appointed attorney ad litem by that date. The letter gave no reason for termination of his contract.
Brittany Nicole Edwards, an attorney with the office of Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, maintained that Copeland was terminated because his email had contained his signature line as attorney ad litem, not specifically because of the content alone. She said Copeland had sent a politically charged email, “despite the AOC’s need to stay politically neutral.”
“By signing with his official title, his First Amendment protection did not exist,” Edwards said.
Marshall disagreed, noting that Copeland had sent numerous emails to Fite containing his signature line that did not anger her and nothing had ever been said.
“I don’t believe it’s the causal factor of why the Administrative Office was concerned,” he said. “I think the AO was concerned with what grumpy legislators can do or not do to a state agency.”
Marshall said that because of the current crowded court calendar he could not promise when the matter could be scheduled for trial, but he indicated that the matter might be better settled in a different manner.
“I would encourage everyone to take a step back and figure out a way to move on,” he said.
After the hearing, Copeland expressed his pleasure at Marshall’s ruling.
“I’m very pleased,” he said. “I’m ready to get back to work.”
“The real winners are the children of Arkansas,” said Copeland’s wife, Cohen, who accompanied her husband to the hearing. “They get their attorney back.”