House Approves Impeachment Procedures After Judge's Protest

May 3, 2017

File photo of Arkansas House Speaker Jeremy Gillam (R-Judsonia).
Credit Jacob Kauffman / KUAR

On a 73- 13 vote Wednesday, the Arkansas House of Representatives implemented rules that specify the procedure for removing a public elected official from duty. The measure’s passage came after calls by conservative legislators to impeach Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen.

The judge took part in an anti-death penalty demonstration just a few hours after issuing a ruling last month that temporarily blocked Arkansas’s scheduled executions.

The Arkansas Supreme Court subsequently removed Griffen from any death penalty-related cases.
The judge is currently under investigation by the state Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission for his conduct.

The sponsor of HR1001, House Speaker Jeremy Gillam, said he was the proposing rules because he had lately received comments from fellow legislators who were looking into the impeachment process.

“If this is imminent, and it might happen, we’d be prudent to get something into place. That’s why I bring it before you now,” said the Republican from Judsonia.

“I’m doing this as a necessary administrative function,” he said.

On Monday, Republican State Sen. Trent Garner of El Dorado released a statement requesting that the House to impeach Griffen.

The Arkansas Constitution gives the Legislature the authority to impeach a public official, but rules governing the process have never been spelled out in the House of Representatives. Under the new rules, impeachment proceedings can carry forth if at least 34 House members co-sponsor a resolution. A committee would be assigned by the speaker to investigate the claims. If the committee finds that an impeachment is warranted, members could vote to refer the matter to the full House. The House could then vote for impeachment with a simple majority.

Republican Rep. Kim Hendren of Gravette opposed the rule change because he said it gave the Speaker too much power.

“If the Speaker now, or the Speaker in the future does not like what I say down here, they could ask that I be impeached, or you, based on this bill,” Hendren said.

Democratic Rep. Vivian Flowers of Pine Bluff also spoke against the adoption of impeachment rules, saying the timing of the measure spoke to the underlying motives.

“This is not about a process that began a while ago and we want to be responsible. This is about Judge Griffen,” she said.

File photo of Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen taking part in a demonstration against the death penalty last month outside the Arkansas Governor's Mansion.
Credit Brian Chilson / Arkansas Times

If the House were to impeach an official, a separate impeachment trial would have to be held in the Senate. The Arkansas Legislature has reportedly never impeached a public official since the current state constitution was adopted in 1874.

In 2014, the House nearly crafted rules to proceed with the impeachment of former Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Darr over alleged misuse of campaign funds. Darr resigned from office before any impeachment articles were drawn up and the matter was dropped.

On a post to his blog Wednesday, Griffen addressed efforts by the Legislature to set up an impeachment process, arguing he has a right to free speech:

Note to the politicians, investigators, and others who would like to suppress speech, religious expression, and peaceful conduct they find disagreeable:  Article VI, Section 1 of the Constitution of the United States contains these words:  This Constitution … shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.  Those words are part of the Constitution as it was originally adopted in 1787.

My critics took an oath to support the Constitution of the United States.  We should insist that their actions match the oath they swore and respect the freedoms enshrined in the Constitution that governs all of us, and each person among us, especially when we disagree.   

Political officeholders have the right to disagree with what others say and do.  We have no right to use our offices to punish or threaten people for exercising their right to disagree with us.  The word we use whenever that happens isn't loyalty.  It isn't patriotism.  It isn't honor.

Whenever that happens, the word we use is tyranny.