Man behind Texas abortion case is better known as anti-tax crusader

‘This may be just a case of opportunism and still a way for him to stir the pot. I think he’s trying to make a little money out of it, but he also might be trying to make a point’

Ann E. Marimow
Monday 27 September 2021 20:17
<p>Leen Garza participates in a protest with others against the six-week abortion ban at the Capitol in Austin, Texas</p>

Leen Garza participates in a protest with others against the six-week abortion ban at the Capitol in Austin, Texas

Arkansas officials who tangled for years with Oscar Stilley were surprised to see his name resurface in a Texas showdown over abortion this week, in part because they thought he was still serving time in federal prison.

But there he was, on home confinement and a self-appointed central figure in yet another quixotic legal battle.

Stilley, an anti-tax crusader and disbarred lawyer convicted of tax evasion a decade ago, sued a Texas physician who admitted to performing an abortion considered illegal under a new state law, which bars the procedure as early as six weeks into pregnancy.

Drafters of the ban have evaded early court scrutiny because the law must be enforced by private individuals, rather than the government. Anyone can sue a Texas abortion provider even if they don’t live in the state. They get at least $10,000 if successful.

Trying to upend legal norms, as this law does, is nothing new for Stilley.

He spent years using ballot initiatives and the court system to advocate for taxpayers and test government officials, backing six failed constitutional amendments on sales tax, property tax and school choice in one particularly unsuccessful year.

Stilley says he is not personally opposed to abortion. He has no ties to the doctor he’s sued or the patient who got an early abortion. Rather, he saw an opening in Texas to check the legality of the new abortion restrictions and to potentially collect a pay out.

“This may be just a case of opportunism and still a way for him to stir the pot. I think he’s trying to make a little money out of it, but he also might be trying to make a point,” said Bobby Roberts, the former director of the Central Arkansas Library System, who fought Stilley’s ballot initiative in the late 1990s that would have gotten rid of the state property tax and, opponents said, decimated funding for public schools and libraries.

“That’s the kind of thing this law is going to open up,” Roberts said of the Texas measure. “Everyone with an axe to grind, who wants to make a little money or wants to be in the paper – he might be the first, but he won’t be the last.”

The ban took effect on 1 September, effectively halting most abortions in Texas. The Supreme Court refused to immediately block the law, even though justices said opponents raised serious questions about whether it violates the constitutional right to abortion before viability, usually around 22 to 24 weeks.

The court’sconservative majority said abortion providers, who initially sued state judges and clerks, had not shown their lawsuit was targeting the right people.

Stilley sued after he read news reports about San Antonio physician Alan Braid, who came forward in a column in The Washington Post to say he had violated the ban, essentially inviting a lawsuit. Two other lawsuits also have been filed against Braid, including one from another disbarred lawyer in Illinois who says he favors abortion rights.

A state court ruling in any of the cases could eventually be appealed to the Texas Supreme Court and make its way to the US Supreme Court, setting up a direct legal test of the law’s constitutionality.

Before Stilley’s conviction for federal tax fraud in 2009, his statewide ballot initiatives and long-shot lawsuits frustrated officials at all levels of state government, even though Stilley was almost always defeated.

At different times, he sued former Republican governor Mike Huckabee, the state treasurer, the finance director and school leaders. He once tried to have the judges on the Arkansas Supreme Court disqualified for bias from reviewing his case.

Jerry Canfield, the longtime city attorney in Fort Smith, where Stilley used to practice law, recalled what he characterised as frivolous, baseless lawsuits against school and city officials primarily to try to stop the collection of certain taxes.

Canfield and the superintendent of schools would catch up at church on Sundays, he said, and the conversation inevitably turned to: “What has Oscar done this week, and what can we do to deal with him?”

Stilley did prevail in one instance in the late 1990s in blocking officials from using tax dollars to pay for a new parking garage for a business that subsequently located outside the city limits.

He ran for state Senate but did not win.

Even Arkansas officials at odds with Stilley politically say they like him personally. He is pugnacious and persistent, but not mean spirited. They praise his determination and ability to attract news coverage for his endeavors.

Stilley, 58, used his complaint in the Texas abortion lawsuit this week in part to detail his grievances with the criminal justice system and link to his website, which advertises legal support services and his book “Busting the Feds”.

With renewed media attention, Stilley also circulated a photo he staged on his porch at home in Cedarville, where he is serving the remainder of his 15-year prison term because of the pandemic. In the picture, Stilley leans back slightly in a rocking chair with his left leg elevated to show an electronic ankle monitor. The ankle is shackled, for effect, with a rusty chain.

Stilley grew up in rural Carroll County, Ark. His father was a Baptist minister. His mother cleaned houses and took care of elderly neighbors. Stilley dropped out of school after eighth grade and went to work planting trees for the timber industry. He was inspired to go to law school, he said in a recent interview, after his boss’s business was ruined by the Internal Revenue Service.

“It’s crass to take money away from people who live in tents, work in the mud and have to travel across the country to work. It was the utmost in wrongdoing,” he told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in 1994.

After passing his high school equivalency exam, Stilley finished college in three years, he said, before going on to law school at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville and setting up his practice in Fort Smith.

He was not deterred by a string of losses in court and periods in which he was in debt from borrowing hundreds of thousands of dollars to gather ballot petition signatures.

Tapping into anti-tax sentiment in the state, he gathered enough signatures for his initiative to abolish the property tax and replace it with an increase in the sales tax.

But the state Supreme Court invalidated the proposition before the vote, finding forged signatures and improper collection methods.

The potential windfall from some of his proposals was also appealing, just as it is in the Texas case. One of Stilley’s failed initiatives to sell off publicly owned county hospitals would have reduced property taxes, for example, but also paid him a 5 per cent commission on the sales.

Stilley’s legal career and political activism were cut short in 2010 when a jury convicted him and a friend of conspiring to hide money and avoid paying taxes through Stilley’s law firm trust account. The friend operated a ministry with the mission of getting rid of the IRS, and the government said neither man had filed federal tax returns since the 1980s.

Stilley represented himself in the trial, which took place in Oklahoma. He maintains his innocence.

The lawsuit Stilley filed in Texas was not the one supporters of the abortion ban anticipated. Until Braid, the San Antonio doctor, wrote his piece in The Post, the law appeared to be working as intended: Texas abortion providers said they were abiding by the new restrictions and sending women to other states to terminate their pregnancies if an ultrasound indicated cardiac activity in the womb.

Texas Right to Life’s legislative director called Stilley’s lawsuit a “self-serving” legal stunt.

But Stilley is not one to shy from controversy or criticism, especially in court.

When the Arkansas Supreme Court took his law license away a decade ago, the court said Stilley had for years “refused to accept the finality” of judicial decisions and had “consistently engaged in conduct intended to harass opposing counsel and judges with whom he disagrees.”

The Washington Post

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