Judge's Lawsuit Against Arkansas Supreme Court Dismissed

Jul 2, 2018

Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen was banned from hearing death penalty cases after he was photographed at an anti-capital punishment protest the same day he blocked the state from using a lethal injection drug on April 14, 2017.
Credit Brian Chilson / Arkansas Times

A federal appeals court ruled Monday that a lawsuit filed by an Arkansas judge against members of the state Supreme Court should be dismissed.

Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen originally sued the sitting justices of the Arkansas Supreme Court after he was barred from hearing cases regarding the death penalty.

The ban came after Griffen was photographed at an anti-capital punishment protest outside the Governor's Mansion on April 14, 2017, the same day he blocked the state from using a lethal injection drug. The state Attorney General’s office said Griffen couldn’t avoid the appearance of unfairness when hearing death penalty-related cases.

Griffen, who is also a Baptist minister, said the ban violated his First Amendment rights to free speech and protection from retalitation on the basis of religion.

The Arkansas Code of Judicial Conduct states that a judge "shall disqualify himself or herself in any proceeding in which the judge’s impartiality might reasonably be questioned." It says a judge or judicial candidate should not make "a public statement, other than in a court proceeding, judicial decision, or opinion, that commits or appears to commit the judge to reach a particular result or rule in a particular way in the proceeding or controversy."

In a 14-page ruling, a three-judge panel of the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals said Griffen’s stance against capital punishment didn’t qualify as an activity protected from retaliation by an employer. It also said the state has the right to assign lawsuits to judges who haven’t made public statements related to the content of the suit.

The ruling also noted the public perception of an impartial judiciary supersedes any burden placed on Griffen’s religious beliefs.