Tuesday, May 2, 2017

House moves to set stage for impeachment of Judge Wendell Griffen over death penalty protest

Posted By on Tue, May 2, 2017 at 2:11 PM

SETTING UP THE GALLOWS: Juidge Wendell Griffen, who said he was illustration the crucifixion of Christ during a death penalty protest, is now targeted for professional execution by the Arkansas legislature.
  • SETTING UP THE GALLOWS: Juidge Wendell Griffen, who said he was illustration the crucifixion of Christ during a death penalty protest, is now targeted for professional execution by the Arkansas legislature.
House Speaker Jeremy Gillam (R-Judsonia) is clearly running for higher office. He has introduced a resolution, heading for a meeting of the House Rules Committee he controls today, to establish a path for impeachment proceedings against Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen.

The resolution, if approved in committee, would amend House rules to include a rule regarding the procedure for consideration of articles of impeachment.

The resolution (no, it doesn't name Griffen specifically) says a resolution sponsored by 34 representatives can set an investigation in motion and refer it to a committee that would take testimony, hold public hearings and produce a recommendation to the House. A majority vote for impeachment would be required to send the matter to the Senate for trial.

The Arkansas Legislature has never impeached a judge. The Arkansas House has not, in recent times, suggested impeachment for 1) a judge caught up in a bribery probe (he resigned of his own volition); 2) two judges caught in multiple sexual improprieties with defendants and eventually forced from office through judicial discipline proceedings; 3) a judge who beat his wife's boyfriend (admonished); 4) a judge who recently blew drunk through a sobriety checkpoint and tried to evade police (admonished). To name a few and not include a judge charged with manslaughter, then acquitted, in death of his child. It took no action against a senator who went to prison or a lieutenant governor who eventually quit for misuse of state money and campaign funds. To name a few more. The process tends to work itself out with posturing legislators playing to the cheap seats.

UPDATE: A spokesman for Speaker Gillam said no action is "imminent" — other than likely adoption of the new rule on Wednesday.  But he told other reporters today "the discussion of Judge Griffen highlighted the fact the House did not have procedures in place."

Sen. Trent Garner (R-El Dorado) has called for the House to impeach Wendell Griffen and House Speaker Gillam, who wants to run for secretary of state, seem anxious to oblige no doubt on account of the outcry over Griffen's recent run in the news. Griffen made the misjudgment of participating in a death penalty protest demonstration shortly after he'd issued an order that would have effectively delayed Arkansas executions on account of a complaint from a drug distributor that the state had been dishonest and acted repeatedly in bad faith to obtain drugs it and the maker didn't want used in executions.

It was a property lawsuit. After the Arkansas Supreme Court removed Griffen from the case without a hearing, another judge, hearing the same set of facts, also issued an order against use of one of the drugs. The Supreme Court also overturned that judge.

The Supreme Court has referred Griffen to the state Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission. Its review will continue in due course. Past experience — and U.S. Supreme Court law — tell us that judges have broad First Amendment speech rights. I think, however, it possible — and likely — that judicial regulators will find that there's a point at which free speech conflicts unduly with the appearance of impartiality required of judges when speech collides so close with a case. Even so, is this violation impeachable? Is it gross misconduct in office to give a reading of the law affirmed by another judge based on the persuasive and genuine pleading of misconduct by the state of Arkansas? Do we really believe judges don't rule every day on matters on which they have strong personal opinions?

Garner and members of the House seem to have prejudged this case, even as they castigate Griffen's lack of ethics. Garner has cited a list of objectionable statements clearly within Griffen's rights to utter — about police and schools. Garner wants him silenced because the speech offends him, just as he offered legislation to make mass demonstrations illegal.  A fan of the 1st Amendment he is not.

Griffen is an outspoken black man who frequently says things that make the white establishment uncomfortable. So he's a far more popular legislative target. Garner, Gillam and Co. express no similar instant outrage against a bribe-taker, sexual predators, schoolyard bullies, drunks and thieves

Griffen is about to be thrown into a constitutional predicament that he'll enjoy negotiating if the past is any indication. And I think it almost certain he could be removed from office by this Legislature and run successfully for election again.

Some resistance is in the works for the planned House Rules Committee meeting, Rep. John Walker tells me.

Does the legislature really want to short-circuit the separation of powers and open this issue simply because it's perceived — likely correctly — as popular? The recent legislative session gives us the regrettable answer. Demagoguery trumps rational thinking every time.

UPDATE: Gillam's hand-picked committee recommended approval of the rules change.

PS: I should add, the Judicial Discipline Commission, in addition to reviewing a complaint about Griffen, is reviewing his complaint about the Supreme Court's unfairness is handing his case. I presume the legislature has prejudged THAT matter, too, and found it wanting in terms of impeachment.

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