At the start of any attempt to correct the injustices of a society, the right side of history is the narrowest of ledges, hovering over a terrible drop. Though that ledge may eventually grow into something that encompasses the whole nation, in the beginning, it's a bare toehold, buffeted at all times by the howls of zealots. Ask the Little Rock Nine about the narrowness of that ledge. Ask the Stonewall Rioters or Abraham Lincoln, or Susan B. Anthony.
Still, thank God, there are folks willing to step out there. For the past year, one of those folks in Arkansas has been Little Rock lawyer Jack Wagoner III. Last June, soon after the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its landmark decision in U.S. v. Windsor — which struck down the Defense of Marriage Act's prohibition on same-sex marriage as unconstitutional — a spur-of-the-moment Facebook post entangled Wagoner in the fight for LGBT rights in Arkansas, territory he'd previously visited before. Since then, Wagoner, along with Searcy attorney Cheryl Maples and others, has provided both behind-the-scenes legal expertise and impassioned and sometimes emotional courtroom argument in support of the right of gays and lesbians to marry. Those efforts led to Pulaski Circuit Judge Chris Piazza's May 9 ruling that struck down the state's ban on gay marriage. With that ruling since stayed by the Arkansas Supreme Court, Wagoner is gearing up for the next court fight, one that he's confident he, Maples and the plaintiffs they represent will win.
It's a long way from where Wagoner started: a near-burnout kid from Little Rock, bounced from school to school, who graduated with a GPA that wouldn't buy you a king-sized candy bar if it was dollars and cents. His outspoken zeal for the issue of gay marriage springs from a belief he's had since he was in college: The reason the Constitution exists is to protect the minority from the whims of the majority. Mixed in with that, however, is a heaping spoonful of something else that drives him: He just doesn't like the majority all that much, especially when they're waving around a Bible.
Wagoner was born in 1961, the son of a Little Rock doctor and a homemaker. Though his father, Dr. Jack Wagoner Jr., was somewhat conservative in his thinking, he opened the first integrated medical practice in the state in 1969, partnering with a black physician. That decision-turned-statement on equality has stuck with his son.
"That was a bold move for a white doctor with four kids, coming out of medical school in 1969," Wagoner said. "He did the right thing, rather than think about how it was going to affect his livelihood, his practice, what people thought, or any of that. I've always been really proud of that."
As a kid, Wagoner acknowledged, he was a troublemaker, skipping so many classes that his parents eventually sent him to Pulaski Academy for two years, thinking that would help. By the end of the ninth grade, though, he was on the verge of being kicked out. "If you got nine detentions, you were expelled," he said. "Three tardies was a detention hall. I got down to eight detention halls and two tardies in the ninth grade. My parents said, 'If you'll just shut your mouth and not get expelled, we'll let you go to Hall next year,' so I behaved completely for the next three months."
Wagoner didn't do much better in high school, graduating from Hall High in 1979 by the skin of his teeth with a 1.53 GPA. As a young man, he delivered flowers, and lived a wild life of partying with friends. "I didn't want any part of this normal adult world," he said. "I pictured myself working in a pizza place in Boulder, Colo., or California, drinking beer and hanging out, having a little apartment in the mountains."
A friend of his started classes at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, and to Wagoner's amazement, the guy was soon pulling down straight As. Wagoner enrolled soon after, and found that the educational freedom afforded to college students worked for him. He eventually graduated with a 3.6 GPA, his course load heavy on religion and philosophy classes. After college, he was again conflicted about what to do with his life. "I thought about opening up a little Charlie Brown stand with a sign that said: 'Philosophy, 5 cents'," he said with a laugh.
Returning home from a Grateful Dead show in Texas in 1983, Wagoner literally flipped a coin to decide whether to go law school or try for his Ph.D. in philosophy. He said that even if the coin toss hadn't been in favor of law school, he probably would have overruled it. "I never set out to be a lawyer," he said. "But I always knew that I hated people telling other people what to do. I have a strong distrust for authority —those in control and those in charge."
Taking courses at what would eventually become UALR's Bowen School of Law, Wagoner said the classes quickly divided between those who believed the law should be a check on authority and those who believed getting bad people off the streets trumped all else.
"There was a group of us who thought, 'If some guy gets let go with a hundred pounds of cocaine in his truck because they pulled some monkey business to make up an excuse to search him, then it was better to let that guy go than to just start shirking the rules.' The other side had a feeling like, 'The end justifies the means. If we cheat or cut corners, it doesn't matter about that as long as we got the bad guy.' That way of thinking leads to a breakdown of constitutional protections."
Wagoner worked for Bill Wilson, who would go on to the federal bench, during law school and served as a clerk for Pulaski Circuit Judge Ellen Brantley after he graduated in the top 5 percent of his law school class. That performance could have easily landed him a job with a corporation or a big firm, Wagoner said, but that just isn't his thing. "That's where most of the stuff that pisses me off occurs," he said. "I didn't want that."
It was from Wilson, Wagoner said, that he learned the passion of fighting for those without power. "He wanted to fight for the little guy against the insurance companies and the cops," Wagoner said. "I don't like calling it the Democratic side or the progressive side. I like to call it 'The Side of the Little Guy.' That's what I see in progressives and the liberals and the Democrats."
In a two-lawyer firm in a storefront in Riverdale, in a cluttered office with a portrait of The Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia smiling beatifically down from the wall, at a desk adorned with a large coffee cup that says "Like I Give a Fuck," Jack Wagoner takes on the world. Most days, unless he's got to be in court, he dresses like he's on his way to a Jimmy Buffett concert: blousy shorts, sandals, loud shirts. His bicycle leans in the hallway, so he can hop on and head down to the river if he needs to clear his head. He'll commonly do 20 miles before work. He's his own boss, and can say whatever damn fool thing that pops into his head. That's the way he likes it.
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