Jack Wagoner fights for equality 

A Facebook post landed Little Rock lawyer Jack Wagoner III in the fight for same-sex marriage in Arkansas. His thoughts on patriotism, Sen. Jason Rapert and why the case for equality should prevail.

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.

'Philosophy, 5 cents'

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."

Moral man of the year

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.


Speaking of...

Comments (10)

Showing 1-10 of 10

Add a comment

Subscribe to this thread:
Showing 1-10 of 10

Add a comment

More by David Koon

  • It's Mo'Betta now

    Washed out of Louisiana by Hurricane Katrina, a chef finds hope in a pot of gumbo 10 years later.
    • Oct 1, 2015
  • Warrior

    As a young man, Ted Holder helped Arkansas take some of its first steps toward LGBT equality.
    • Oct 1, 2015
  • More »

Readers also liked…

  • The medical marijuana push in Arkansas

    Activists work to gather signatures.
    • Mar 28, 2012
  • Lord of the rings

    Arkansas Burger Co. tops in onion rings.
    • Jul 25, 2012
  • An open letter to Rep. Jon Hubbard

    My name is Clayton Lust, I am a PhD candidate in history at the University of Houston. I recently read comments attributed to you on arktimes.com, and to say I was horrified is an understatement. I have spent the last nine years teaching at the college level attempting to correct interpretations such as yours.
    • Oct 10, 2012

Most Shared

  • The fall of Boehner

    Nothing so became U.S. Rep. John Boehner's tenure as speaker of the House as his manner of leaving it. Subjectively speaking, he has never appeared to believe very much of the nonsense his position required him to utter. An old school politician who literally grew up working in the family bar, his conservatism is of the traditional Midwestern kind — more Bob Dole, say, than Ted Cruz.
  • Warrior

    As a young man, Ted Holder helped Arkansas take some of its first steps toward LGBT equality.
  • Huckawho? Ex-gov is yesterday's flavor

    Given the wild gyrations of the Republican presidential nominating race, I write these words knowing that a future meal of them remains possible, but nonetheless: Mike Huckabee is toast.
  • First Nixon, then Boehner

    Like Richard Nixon's resignation speech 41 years earlier, John Boehner's sudden valedictory from Congress may be said to be the old politician's finest moment.
  • Razorbackula and a tour through the police blotter

    A certain morbid curiosity about crime is one of the few silver linings of living in a place where the per capita crime rate rivals even the shystiest hellhole corners of the country. So that’s our topic for the week, crime reporting.

Latest in Cover Stories

  • Oh, pioneers!

    Ted Holder and Jennifer Chilcoat were long in the fight for LGBT rights in Arkansas
    • Oct 1, 2015
  • Warrior

    As a young man, Ted Holder helped Arkansas take some of its first steps toward LGBT equality.
    • Oct 1, 2015
  • She got her gumption up

    Tennessee transplant jumped into volunteer work with PALS.
    • Oct 1, 2015
  • More »

Event Calendar

« »


  1 2 3
4 5 6 7 8 9 10
11 12 13 14 15 16 17
18 19 20 21 22 23 24
25 26 27 28 29 30 31

Most Viewed

  • Warrior

    As a young man, Ted Holder helped Arkansas take some of its first steps toward LGBT equality.
  • Rapert wary heartbeat rules not implemented

    Emails to Health Department, Medical Board demand proof.
  • Oh, pioneers!

    Ted Holder and Jennifer Chilcoat were long in the fight for LGBT rights in Arkansas
  • This Supreme Court brought to you by big business

    Also, pope fever, bye-bye Boehner, more tilting at windmills from Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, driving Dixie down and more.
  • Good exposure

    Lera Lynn of Athens, Ga., who provides a Greek Chorus-like mournful background to season 2 of HBO's "True Detective" showed off a vast range of country-influenced music in an appearance at South on Main last Thursday night.

Most Recent Comments

  • Re: No rights for tenants in Arkansas

    • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9G2Pk2JZP-E

    • on October 4, 2015
  • Re: No rights for tenants in Arkansas

    • All these landlords have a big mouth. It's time to shut their mouths by suing…

    • on October 4, 2015
  • Re: Warrior

    • Ted since Hendrix. Hero. Good guy.

    • on October 3, 2015

© 2015 Arkansas Times | 201 East Markham, Suite 200, Little Rock, AR 72201
Powered by Foundation