Jackson “Steve” Stephens is a political powerhouse. He is chairman of the board of the Club for Growth – an organization that has been tremendously successful in forcing Republicans in Congress to stick to principles of lower taxes and limited government. Stephens was also the plaintiff in a recent lawsuit which attempted to block the statewide vote to hike the minimum wage. Shortly after the Supreme Court rejected Stephens’ suit to block the initiative, he responded with a statement ending with what I thought was a highly pregnant sentence, namely: “a judicial-recall provision as an initiated act is the most appropriate response to this and other shocking judicial decisions Arkansans have been subjected to this year.” I thought this statement invited certain questions; Stephens took my call and laid out his thoughts about the Arkansas judiciary and his future plans. A shortened and edited transcript of our conversation is below.
How did you decide to get involved with your minimum wage lawsuit?
Well, empirically, the minimum wage does not do what it is designed to do. It does not help poor people. And I think the facts in Arkansas bear that out. The last time that the minimum wage was raised in Arkansas, in 2006, black youth unemployment in the state was 29 percent. Today it is 39 percent. And that is the demographic that the minimum wage is designed to help. That’s what they [its supporters] say, anyway; it’s clearly not the case. So I start with the premise, substantiated with facts like that, and I can cite others … and I see an initiative that has an 80 percent approval rating, so I read.
So I go to the Ethics Commission website, in the ballot initiative section, and I look up the people who are sponsoring this. It’s called GARN. They’re ostensibly sponsoring this. Long about June, they’ve raised maybe $10,000 and spent about $7,000. Well, I sponsored an initiative to remove the sales tax on food and medicine back in 2002, and I know it takes more than $10,000 to collect signatures, no matter how many good-hearted souls and canvassers you have out there.
So knowing that, I look around a little bit more, and I see that there’s something called Arkansas Interfaith Alliance, that’s raised … around $430,000. And they’re involved in the minimum wage. And AIA raised that money primarily from big labor unions: the Steelworkers, the NEA, the IBEW. And so on.
And they pay all this money to the Markham Group, which I know to be a political organization for Democrats. So I know it doesn’t take over $400,000 to get signatures for an initiated act, and I say to myself: there’s something not right here.
So I know David Sterling, and so I ask him to take a look at the canvassing and signature-gathering process, and see if he found anything that looked suspicious. Because this smells bad to me, and I have been involved in political mechanics …
And so he did: David’s the one who dug all this up. And his team. And he said “Steve, there’s fraud here, especially with the notary public.” So I said, let’s sue the Secretary of State and bring it to the court’s attention that there’s fraud involved in the signature-gathering process. And he said “You’re not going to be very popular,” and I said “When has that ever bothered me?”
So it looks like you originally had policy concerns, and eventually you had transparency concerns, and then it got to the point where you had corruption concerns?
Exactly. Thank you for your editing! That is exactly what happened.
I saw your statement that you released after the Supreme Court’s verdict. Is there anything you’d like to add to it?
I’d like to tell you what I’m now really concerned about. Look at paragraph 8 of the Secretary of State’s instructions for gathering signatures: the notarization process is obviously important to give an entire paragraph to. And to have fraud involved makes the entire process suspicious from now on. The institutionalization of fraud contravenes all of the common law that says that fraud makes null and void what it’s perpetrated on … I was astonished at the Supreme Court’s statement that fraud was not a consideration in this process.
Let me just tell you a practical effect. Yesterday, I instructed my lawyers – I have a pharmaceutical company, and we have a drug in Phase 3 clinical trials here in the U.S., and I have another office in Massachusetts, and a manufacturing and laboratory operation in Omaha – it’s around the country. All of my employment agreements and contracts, when I can, I always say: I don’t care about venue, but when we can, we’ll just use Arkansas law. I changed all of that yesterday. The reason was that I have no faith in the ultimate decision making of the judiciary in Arkansas …
Now I’d given the court a pass in my own mind where the voter ID thing was concerned, but you couple that with this, and they are institutionalizing fraud in the electoral process in Arkansas.
That brings to me to another question about your statement, where you suggested you had concerns about other recent state Supreme Court decisions. What, generally, are your concerns about the state Supreme Court?
[Look at] the voter ID decision. These are the kinds of decisions that nick at the public trust that Judge Hannah [Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Arkansas] is so intent on establishing. His efforts to put the Supreme Court into a position of esteem in the public eye is a loss, as far as I’m concerned. We have a common-law system, and that’s based on precedent. You don’t want to have court results that are just cut out of whole cloth.
Are you sympathetic to Dustin McDaniel’s criticism that the court is acquiring a reputation as a results-oriented body?
Precisely. But I think “outcome-based” is better.
So when my next-door neighbor says that we need judicial recall elections, it’s one thing. But when Steve Stephens puts out a statement that we need to have judicial recall elections, it’s something else. Because you’ve shown that, with your work for the Club for Growth, you’re willing to put some resources into your political ideas. Are you giving some thought to putting some resources into some kind of judicial recall provision?
Is this something you’ve been thinking about for a while?
Does it make more sense to have a general recall provision for all elected officials, or does it make more sense to have a recall provision aimed specifically at judges?
Should we be able to recall legislators as well as judges? That is a penetrating question. It’s what is politically doable. A judicial recall provision is preferable to no recall provision. An overall recall provision is preferable to a partial recall provision.
Tell me, when someone says, we need an independent judiciary in Arkansas, what does that mean to you?
An independent judiciary is a check on overreach by legislators or a governor – an overreach into constitutional powers that they do not have, and that has led to bad public policy … It’s a check and balance system, and an independent judiciary sometimes seems to be code for something that embraces bad public policy … Public policy is not the judiciary’s role … The idea of an independent judiciary has to be understood in the context of a balance of power.
Do you think that when some people use the phrase “independent judiciary,” it is supposed to serve as a kind of shield against certain criticisms of the judiciary?
Let me put it in a political context, because this Arkansas Supreme Court appears to me to be a political animal. In my work at the Club for Growth, the thing we do from time to time is we attempt to unseat incumbents. Incumbents in the Congress, if they want to get re-elected, generally get re-elected 98 percent of the time… This has led to the kind of morass that we currently find ourselves in, and a straightforward path to being dead broke. When you insulate a branch of government from competition, and the kind of oversight that a political market provides, you get all kinds of weird happenings like the embracing of fraud, and that destroys the public trust … To heck with the fact that there’s fraud involved, and that in essence is what it says to me … It appears to me to be an outcome-based political decision.
Because the Club for Growth for model (in my mind) has pretty clearly been successful, can you compare whether it makes more sense to carry out a Club for Growth model in judicial elections or whether it makes more sense to carry out a recall election model?
That is the debate I am currently having – with both myself and with others! … A Club for Growth model for judicial elections will require an organizational effort. It requires not just me being involved. We have a dedicated and straightforward board that has a lot of insight; we have a staff that is very talented and knows exactly what the mission is and it is run very tightly. That model is a wonderful model to emulate … it has been shaped by some mighty fine minds, and I think we could attract that in Arkansas, and I’m going to explore that.