LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — An effort to sanction an Arkansas judge who participated in a death penalty demonstration the same day he blocked the use of an execution drug has more to do with displeasure at the sight of his protest than any ethical violations, an attorney for the judge told a disciplinary panel on Friday.
A judicial ethics commission held a hearing on Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen’s request to dismiss the complaint against him over the demonstration last year. Griffen was photographed on a cot outside the governor’s mansion last year wearing an anti-death penalty button and surrounded by people holding signs opposing executions. Earlier that day, Griffen blocked the state from using a lethal injection drug over claims the company had been misled by the state.
A three-member panel of the Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission in June charged Griffen with violating ethics rules, citing the demonstration as well as the judge’s comments online and on social media against the death penalty. Austin Porter Jr., an attorney representing Griffen, said the case runs afoul of a U.S. Supreme court decision upholding the rights of judges to speak out on social and legal issues. He said it also violates another high court ruling that barred excluding jurors from murder cases because they hold moral or religious objections to capital punishment.
“This is a case really about optics and not about ethics,” Porter told the commission.
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Rachel Michel, the special counsel appointed to handle Griffen’s case, cited the state Supreme Court’s decision to bar Griffen from handling death penalty-related cases and remove him from the lethal injection drug case following the demonstration.
“If that doesn’t define reasonably questioned impartiality, I don’t know what could,” Michel said.
Porter, however, noted that the judge who handled the execution drug case after Griffen was disqualified made the same ruling. Justices reversed that ruling, and Arkansas ultimately put four inmates to death over an eight-day period last year.
The commission went into deliberations following the hearing, which lasted less than an hour, but did not issue a ruling by Friday afternoon. The full commission is expected to hold a hearing this fall on Griffen if the case isn’t dismissed, and could recommend the State Supreme Court suspend or remove the judge if it finds he violated judicial rules of conduct.
A three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed Griffen’s lawsuit against the state Supreme Court justices over his disqualification from death penalty cases. Griffen has asked the full 8th Circuit to review his case.
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