Arkansas’ Supreme Court justices are defendants in a federal lawsuit filed by a Black circuit court judge after he halted the executions of nine prisoners because the manufacturer’s drug was never intended to be used in capital punishment.
CNN reported that Judge Wendell Griffen, a Baptist pastor, was pulled off death penalty cases by the justices because he participated in a Good Friday rally against the death penalty. “He was photographed lying on a cot as part of the demonstration. He also wrote a blog post that week stating his belief that the death penalty was not morally defensible — though his lawsuit points out that he did not argue it was legally indefensible.”
One justice concurred with the decision in part, but said the court’s move to permanently reassign all of Griffen’s cases without investigating first was too much. The court referred the matter to a disciplinary commission to investigate.
The Arkansas code of judicial conduct states: “Judges should maintain the dignity of judicial office at all times, and avoid both impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in their professional and personal lives. They should aspire at all times to conduct that ensures the greatest possible public confidence in their independence, impartiality, integrity, and confidence,” the CNN reported.
Griffen’s lawsuit alleges that White judges engaging in criminal behavior were treated more fairly or less severely than he, “an African-American judge who has not been accused of criminal activity,” according to the report.
His lawyers argue he took part in the protests in his personal capacity and didn’t wear his robes or otherwise invoke his judicial role. They also challenge the decision on due process grounds, citing that Griffen did not have a chance to argue his case in court.
Griffen is asking the federal courts to reverse the ruling by the state’s highest court, alleging that “he is being discriminated against for his faith and race, as an African-American,” it was reported. Griffen’s lawyers contend that his protests were an exercise of his First Amendment rights to free speech and freedom of religion.
“Suffice it to say he is a remarkable man and thoughtful judge, and I could not be prouder to represent him,” his attorney Mike Laux told CNN.
“The Arkansas Supreme Court and other ‘powers that be’ have had it out for him for years because of his much-needed outspokenness on dire social issues in a state with a miserable history of protecting the disadvantaged and marginalized, especially those of color. The court and various state legislators have truly gone too far this time, and we intend to prove it,” Laux said.
University of Chicago law professor Geoffrey Stone, an expert on the First Amendment, told CNN, “You have to show that the speech was directly incompatible with his functions. It’s not clear that anything he said was not compatible with his functioning.”
“My own view would be to say he’s perfectly within his rights to say the death penalty is immoral. As long as he is applying the law fairly, judges criticize the law all the time,” Stone concluded.