LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — A disciplinary panel said Monday it won’t dismiss an effort to sanction an Arkansas judge who participated in an anti-death penalty demonstration outside the governor’s mansion the same day he blocked the state from using a lethal injection drug.
The Arkansas Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission denied Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen’s motion to dismiss the ethics complaint over his participation in 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. The state Supreme Court prohibited Griffen from handling any execution-related cases following the demonstration.
A three-member panel of the commission in June charged Griffen with violating judicial ethics rules, citing the demonstration as well as comments he made online and on social media against the death penalty. Griffen had argued his actions were constitutionally protected. Griffen said he based his ruling on the law, not his religious beliefs against the death penalty, and noted that the judge who was reassigned the lethal drug case made the same ruling he did.
The commission, however, said the state has a compelling interest in promoting the judicial system’s impartiality.
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“The commission finds that the statement of allegations alleges that (Griffen) in his conduct failed to uphold and promote the independence, integrity and impartiality of the judiciary, and failed to avoid not only impropriety, but the appearance of impropriety,” the commission said in its ruling. “Actual bias is not necessary.”
Mike Laux, an attorney for Griffen, said the commission incorrectly ruled that a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision on judicial speech was limited to candidates for the court. He noted the state Supreme Court in 2003 used the same U.S. high court decision to overturn previous discipline against Griffen for speaking out about the firing of a University of Arkansas college basketball coach. He also noted that the same U.S. high court ruling was cited by the commission in 2007 when it dismissed a case against Griffen over remarks he made criticizing former President George W. Bush and the war in Iraq.
“At that time, Judge Griffen was serving on the Court of Appeals, and not involved in any judicial election campaign,” Laux said. “Today’s decision–issued one business day after lengthy argument–therefore, makes no sense.”
The decision means the ethics complaint against Griffen now goes to the full commission this fall. The commission could recommend the State Supreme Court suspend or remove the judge if it finds he violated judicial rules of conduct.
In a separate order Monday, the commission ruled in favor of Griffen and ordered the special counsel handling his case to release to the judge any email, voice mail or other communications the panel and staff had received regarding the complaint.
A three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last month 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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