The latest dispute in the long-pending ethics complaint against Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen is an objection by members of the Arkansas Supreme Court to being called as witnesses in the case, set for a hearing June 10.
In April 2017, the Supreme Court made a complaint against Griffen for acting inappropriately by taking part in a Good Friday death penalty demonstration outside the Governor’s Mansion. Griffen lay bound to a cot — depicting the crucified Jesus, he said, but also resembling an inmate awaiting lethal injection. Earlier that day, Griffen had ruled in favor of a lawsuit by a drug distributor seeking return of drugs the state had obtained to perform executions.
The ethics case has dragged on. Griffen has argued it should be dismissed because he enjoyed First Amendment protection for speech and religion. He also says the case has been delayed well beyond the 18-month limit for resolving judicial ethics complaints.
Last week, the wrinkle was an objection by Supreme Court justices and the clerk of the Supreme Court to respond to subpoenas from Griffen’s defense team. The justices say they are protected by privilege from talking about their deliberations and also say their testimony is irrelevant to Griffen’s actions.
Griffen’s attorney Michael Laux has responded that there is no protection for “deliberative process” and says also that the justices — specifically Chief Justice Dan Kemp, Rhonda Wood and Shawn Womack — were indispensable witnesses. Apart from participating in the order reversing Griffen in the drug case and referring him for disciplinary review, it has been revealed that they communicated over the Easter weekend about Griffen with David Sachar, executive director of the Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission.
“The justices, therefore, are witnesses of the first order as well as complainants,” Laux wrote. “It defies logic to say they should not testify.”
The case has been complicated by revolving special counsel. Will the Judicial Discipline Commission ignore the time limit in its rules and proceed with the case? It will be interesting. Griffen is a political hot potato, particularly with the legislature, a factor that likely explains the hurried conversations between justices and Sachar at the time.