Arkansas High Court Won't Prohibit Judge From Hearing AG's Cases

Dec 5, 2019

Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen taking part in an anti-death penalty demonstration in front of the Arkansas Governor's Mansion in April 2017.
Credit Brian Chilson / Arkansas Times

The Arkansas Supreme Court on Thursday rejected the state attorney general's request to prohibit a judge who demonstrated against the death penalty from handling any cases involving her office.

In a 4-3 decision, justices rejected the request by Attorney General Leslie Rutledge to remove the cases from Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen's court. The court did not elaborate on how it reached its decision in a one-page order.

Griffen was prohibited from handling execution cases in 2017 after he participated in an anti-death penalty demonstration the same day he blocked Arkansas from using a lethal injection drug. Rutledge asked in September that the order on execution cases be expanded to include all civil cases involving her office.

Rutledge accused Griffen of regularly yelling at attorneys from her office when they appeared in his court. Griffen has denied any claims of bias and had called the request a “blatant attempt” to defy the process for investigating complaints against judges.

"When Judge Griffen takes the bench, he is well-prepared, and he expects the same of all lawyers before him. It is not complicated," Mike Laux, an attorney for Griffen, said in an email. "And can you imagine the onslaught of ‘do-over’ filings and wild accusations from disgruntled litigants that would follow had the Court granted the AG’s request? It had no choice but to deny."

Rutledge made the request following Griffen's decision in a case regarding an unsuccessful applicant for a medical marijuana cultivation license. In that case, Griffen had rejected the state's argument that it had sovereign immunity.

"Although the Attorney General’s Office is disappointed in the Court’s denial of our request to remove Judge Wendell Griffin from all cases involving this office for his blatant and overt bias, the decision proves the Court is divided on this request with three of the seven justices agreeing that our request has merit," Rebecca Jeffrey, a spokeswoman for Rutledge, said in a statement.

In April 2017, Griffen was photographed wearing an anti-death penalty button and surrounded by people holding signs opposing executions as he lay on a cot outside the governor's mansion. Before the demonstration, Griffen had blocked the state from using a lethal injection drug over the claims that officials misled a medical supply company.

The court in September said it would not allow Griffen to resume hearing execution cases.