Federal Judge Kristine Baker has set a hearing Sept. 8 for Sen. Jason Rapert to show cause why he should not be held in contempt of court for refusing to provide information to opposing lawyers in the lawsuit over the 10 Commandments monument on the state Capitol grounds.
Several plaintiffs sued Secretary of State John Thurston, who oversees the Capitol grounds, in 2018 over the monument, a tablet bearing a version of the 10 Commandments. Rapert led the legislative effort in 2015 to make a place for the installation on Capitol grounds and the plaintiffs contend it amounts to an establishment of religion by the state. A similar monument was successfully challenged in Oklahoma, by the Satanic Temple, which has intervened in the Arkansas case. It says if the 10 Commandments may be memorialized on the Capitol grounds, it should be allowed to place a satanic statue on the grounds.
The case has dragged along, partly because of the pandemic and partly because of resistance by parties to providing information. Rapert has refused to provide information about the source of the bill he introduced to pave the way for the monument, claiming legislative privilege. He has also refused to provide information about the private organization that raised money for the installation. Plaintiffs believe this material would illustrate the religious roots of the project.
In March, the judge found cause to hold a contempt hearing for both sides. In one instance, it applies to plaintiffs’ complaints about the inability to get information from Rapert about his private American History and Heritage Foundation, including names of donors. Rapert resisted, saying donors could be harassed. The judge also has ordered the Satanic Temple to explain why it hasn’t turned over federal tax records. The state’s argument appears to be that the Temple might be a profit-making enterprise. The Temple believes this is irrelevant. It is an intervenor. Other plaintiffs claim an affront as Arkansas citizens to the placement of a religious symbol on public grounds.
The judge also said in March that she would hold status conferences on the continuing disputes in gathering information for the trial.
On Aug. 11, Judge Baker scheduled the Sept. 8 status conference and also set the show-cause hearing. Rapert, who is not a party, has contended that though he is president of the foundation, its records are not in his possession and he should not have to produce anything that isn’t a public record. The court, to date, has rejected that argument.
Public testimony from Rapert, a candidate for lieutenant governor, might be interesting. He’s generally acted as a legislator as a law unto himself, with contempt for judges who’ve ruled against him — notably including decisions by this judge on anti-abortion legislation she held unconstitutional. He did tout her ruling saying that he was entitled to qualified immunity as a legislator for a claim by a party seeking monetary damages from Rapert personally in the case over his blocking people from his social media accounts. Baker allowed that case to proceed, however.