At a press conference today at the Doubletree Hotel just across from the Pulaski County Courthouse, Pulaski County Fifth Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen and his attorneys announced that he has asked the Arkansas Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission to investigate the conduct of the entire Arkansas Supreme Court, and has asked the director of the Arkansas Committee on Professional Conduct to investigate the conduct of Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, Arkansas Solicitor General Lee Rudofsky, Deputy Solicitor General Nicholas Bronni and Senior Assistant AG Colin Jorgensen, related to what Griffen and his attorneys claim were forbidden ex parte conversations between the Supreme Court and the AG’s office.
You can read Griffen’s request here:
At issue are actions by the AG’s office and the Supreme Court following Griffen’s April 14 ruling in a case concerning a claim by drug supplier* McKesson, the same day Griffen’s participated in a Good Friday prayer vigil outside the Governor’s mansion in which Griffen was photographed stretched out on a cot. McKesson had claimed the state bought the execution drug vecuronium bromide from under false pretenses and had asked for the drugs to be returned. Griffen ruled in favor of McKesson’s claim, granting a temporary restraining order that halted the use of the drugs in the state’s planned executions. Later the same day, Griffen joined the prayer vigil at the Governor’s mansion.
The following Monday, after photos of Griffen at the Governor’s mansion circulated online with the claim (which Griffen says is mistaken) that he was imitating a condemned inmate strapped to an execution gurney, the Arkansas Supreme Court vacated his order, barred Griffen from hearing any cases related to the death penalty and recommend him to the Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission to consider whether he had violated the Code of Judicial Conduct.
Griffen was flanked today by attorneys Mike Laux of Chicago, Mike Matthews of Tampa, Fla., and Little Rock attorney Austin Porter Jr. Laux gave a brief rundown of the timeline leading up to Griffen’s removal, saying that on the weekend after Griffen’s ruling in the McKesson case, representatives of the AG’s office met with Arkansas Supreme Court Justices in what Laux called “a clandestine and almost Star Chamber fashion” without notifying Griffen, then filed papers to question Griffen’s ruling on the grounds that Griffen was biased without giving the judge a change to defend himself. Laux and other attorneys said that the AG’s office also failed to notify Griffen of their intention not to defend his order before the Arkansas Supreme Court so that he could retain his own counsel.
In a brief statement, Griffen said that there is a fundamental unfairness in hearing only one side of a dispute before making a ruling. “All of this is basic,” Griffen said. “It is elementary. It is fundamental.”
Laux and Griffen both said the prayer vigil, attended by Griffen and members of his New Millennium Church, was planned and scheduled long before Griffen became involved in the McKesson issue, which Griffen has described as a property rights case. Laux said that it was proper of Griffen to not consider the consequences for the state’s plans to execute eight men if their supply of the paralytic vecuronium bromide was removed. Laux likened it to a theoretical case in which AC Delco requested a judge to order race car driver Mario Andretti to return spark plugs purchased under false pretenses. If Andretti will be unable to race in the Indy 500 the next day because the judge’s ruling might deprive him of spark plugs, Laux said, that should be of no consequence to the judge hearing the case as a property rights claim.
Laux said that by going to the prayer vigil, Griffen was exercising his religious rights and his right to free speech, and was fully entitled to make those expressions both as a citizen and a judge. He called the Supreme Court’s decision to remove Griffen from all further death penalty cases an “incredibly extraordinary step,” as was the decision to refer Griffen for discipline by the JDDC. The decision to not allow Griffen to defend himself against the allegations before making their decision, Laux said, “flies in the face of fairness.” Attorney Mike Matthews said that when the McKesson case came before the Arkansas Supreme Court, AG Leslie Rutledge “was supposed to be his lawyer. Instead, she and her staff went behind his back.”
“In the rush to ram through results,” Matthews said, “you can’t run roughshod over peoples’ rights.” Laux said that Griffen is not trying to make the case personal, but “there were just rules of conduct that weren’t followed.” Laux said that in time, they hope to have Griffen restored to “his full, active docket,” including hearing cases related to death penalty issues.
After the floor was opened to questions from reporters, Griffen was asked about his participation in the prayer vigil or protest at the Governor’s mansion. Through several rounds of questioning, Griffen steadfastly denied that the Good Friday event had anything to do with the upcoming executions, saying that just because the vigil occurred while the state was attempting to execute inmates, that doesn’t mean one caused the other. He said the location was chosen because Governor Hutchinson holds the same position and authority as Pontius Pilate. As for why he lay on the cot, tied down by ropes, Griffen said “I lay on the cot in solidarity with Jesus.” Asked why, in several photos of the event, the supine Griffen was photographed directly in front of protesters holding signs in opposition to the death penalty, he said his church had no obligation to move protesters along. Pressed further on whether or not the photo depicted — as was reported widely — Griffen imitating an executed inmate on a gurney, Griffen denied as much, adding: “I believe that as an American citizen, I have the blessing to live out my faith.” Laux said, “The point is this: he was exercising his rights,” and that what Griffen was doing is protected free speech.
In closing, Griffen said that it was his duty to report perceived misconduct to the proper authorities. He has tried to be transparent in filing the complaints, he said, and did not lodge the complaints anonymously. “I’ve done my duty,” Griffen said. “I will leave it to others to do their duty.”
*A previous version of described McKesson inaccurately as a drug maker.