Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
Though he’s become known as a spirited defender of free speech, Judge Wendell Griffen says “I didn’t set out to be a First Amendment champion. But I certainly don’t mind it. My particular interest is in open government. I want to demystify the way the judicial system works. Too few people understand it.”
A black member of the Arkansas Court of Appeals, one step down from the Arkansas Supreme Court, Griffen is once again entangled with the state agency that disciplines errant judges, charged with judicial misconduct because of things he’s said. He won a skirmish last week, the Arkansas Supreme Court granting Griffen’s request that a hearing on the charges be open to the public. The Supreme Court Commission on Judicial Discipline and Disability, a group of lawyers appointed by the court, had wanted closed proceedings, in line with the way the committee normally operates. The hearing is tentatively set for March 16.
The talkative Griffen has beaten a similar rap before. In 2002, he publicly complained to a group of black legislators about racial policies at his alma mater, the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, including the firing of basketball coach Nolan Richardson and what he said was the university’s failure to attract more black students. The commission gave him a letter of admonition, but the Supreme Court, in a 4 to 3 decision, overturned the commission’s action, saying that the state Code of Judicial Conduct, which the commission enforces, was too vague. The Court has since revised the code.
In 2005, Griffen was accused again, this time for public endorsement of an increase in the state minimum wage (a statewide campaign to raise the wage was in progress at the time and eventually succeeded), and public criticism of the Bush administration – for what Griffen says was an inadequate response to Hurricane Katrina, and for nominating John Roberts to be chief justice of the United States. He also derided leaders of the Religious Right – Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, Pat Robertson. “They’d talked about moral values, but where were they when folks on the Gulf Coast needed help?” Over a period of time, he piped up on other issues.
These are not matters that a supposedly impartial judge should be publicly addressing, according to the commisson’s executive director, James Badami, who began an investigation of Griffen after reading his remarks in the newspaper. And some individuals complained to the commission too, Badami said, although the names of the complainants have not been made public. Griffen says the increase in the minimum wage was needed and was a moral issue, for which a number of other clergy expressed support. He felt compelled to do the same. Griffen is a minister as well as a lawyer, a combination not uncommon in the black community.
The administration’s bumbling – some said unconcerned - reaction to Katrina and the suffering of the storm’s victims, most of them black, was “awful, shameful,” Griffen said. “I watched it on TV and it was painful to see. We expect the government to take care of people when disasters hit.”
As for Roberts, who was confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Griffen said that Roberts’ record on civil rights did not suggest a commitment to protecting those rights. In any event, Griffen says that his right of free speech, guaranteed by the First Amendment, overrides any commission rules.
An anonymous lawyer/blogger has said that “Without a doubt, Wendell Griffen is one of this state’s most intellectual judges.”
If true, that’s a side of Griffen unfamiliar to most people, especially those outside the legal profession. They’re more apt to use words like outspoken, fearless, unprofessional, mouthy, depending on how they feel about him. One adjective that everybody could agree on is “controversial,” a word used too often in journalism but still one that fits Griffen nicely. Controversy, not intellectual achievement, has made him Arkansas’s best-known judge. Controversy and race, some say, although Griffen himself stops short of that.