Senator Requests Impeachment Of Judge For Death Penalty Protest

May 1, 2017

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

Sen. Trent Garner, R-El Dorado, issued a statement on Monday calling for the Arkansas House of Representatives to bring articles of impeachment against Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen.

“Because of his gross misconduct in office, I am calling for the Arkansas House of Representatives to bring an article of impeachment against Judge Wendell Griffen. He should never again be allowed to hold office of any sort in Arkansas. We as the General Assembly can remove the stain that Griffen has left on our judicial integrity,” Garner said in a prepared statement.

Griffen was the judge who participated in an anti-death penalty protest on the same day that he issued a ruling halting Arkansas’ execution schedule in a case brought by a manufacturer seeking to block the state’s use of one of its alleged lethal injection drugs.

Griffen is under investigation by the Judicial Discipline & Disability Commission for potential misconduct and he has been blocked by the Arkansas Supreme Court from participating in additional death row legal filings.

“To protect the integrity of the judicial system this court has a duty to ensure that all are given a fair and impartial tribunal. We find it necessary to immediately reassign all cases in the Fifth Division that involve the death penalty or the state’s execution protocol, whether civil or criminal,” the state’s high court said on April 17th in removing Judge Griffen from cases for consideration.

Griffen struck back on April 27th. He requested that the Arkansas Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission and the Arkansas Committee on Professional Conduct investigate the Arkansas Supreme Court, Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, and certain members of her legal staff “for possible violations of the Arkansas Code of Judicial Conduct and the Arkansas Code of Professional Conduct.”

“The state of Arkansas made national headlines in the past few weeks because of our decision to move forward with a number of executions,” Sen. Garner said. “As expected, a large number of appeals and court battles ensued by parties representing the condemned. The Arkansas legal system was on display for the world to see and unfortunately one judge decided to use this attention to make a mockery of our judicial process. Instead of acting as a neutral arbiter of the law, he selfishly disregarded his duties as a judge.”

Garner’s letter cites other instances of his claims that Griffen, an outspoken advocate of judicial rights to speak freely on issues, has abused his office through free speech.

“Clearly, Griffen has shown that he is not fit to be on the bench. While any respectable judge would resign from his office, Griffen has doubled down. He is now calling for an investigation for ethic violations against the Attorney General and the Arkansas Supreme Court. The irony of Griffen calling for an ethics investigation against anyone would be laughable if this were not such a serious issue,” Garner said.

Senate President Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, cautioned Senators two weeks ago to refrain from discussing potential impeachment proceedings of the judge.

“I ask that you heavily weigh any public comments that you make regarding this process and its outcome. Impeachment is a serious matter. Our role in the process requires an enhanced level of restraint,” Dismang wrote. “In a sense, each [of] us will become 35 independent jurors. We will be under oath and we will have a duty to act objectively when making our determinations… Pre-emptive proclamations of opinion regarding the possible concurrence by members of the Senate will undoubtedly allow the public to call into the question the integrity of the trial and our ability to remain impartial as jurors.”

It’s unclear how an impeachment proceeding might even begin. The Arkansas Legislature has adjourned “sine die” from its regular session. It starts a three-day special session Monday afternoon, but impeachment is not on the governor’s call.

The state’s constitution does not declare how an impeachment should technically proceed, but it could originate in the House or at the direction of the Governor under certain circumstances. Article 15 states:

“The Governor and all State officers, Judges of the Supreme and Circuit Courts, Chancellors and Prosecuting Attorneys, shall be liable to impeachment for high crimes and misdemeanors, and gross misconduct in office; but the judgment shall go no further than removal from office and disqualification to hold any office of honor, trust or profit under this State. An impeachment, whether successful or not, shall be no bar to an indictment.

“The House of Representatives shall have the sole power of impeachment. All impeachments shall be tried by the Senate. When sitting for that purpose, the Senators shall be upon oath or affirmation; no person shall be convicted without the concurrence of two-thirds of the members thereof. The Chief Justice shall preside, unless he is impeached or otherwise disqualified, when the Senate shall select a presiding officer.

“The governor, upon the joint address of two-thirds of all the members elected to each House of the General Assembly, for good cause, may remove the Auditor, Treasurer, Secretary of State, Attorney-General, Judges of the Supreme and Circuit Courts, Chancellors and Prosecuting Attorneys.”