Arkansas Judge Again Protests Death Penalty Prompting Calls For Impeachment

Apr 18, 2018

Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen at last year's death penalty demonstration in front of the Arkansas Governor's Mansion.
Credit Brian Chilson / Arkansas Times

A handful of state lawmakers are calling for Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen’s impeachment amid questions of his fitness to serve on the bench.

Griffen on Tuesday repeated his April 2017 protest of laying on a cot in front of the Arkansas Governor’s Mansion, intending to symbolize a condemned inmate on a gurney.

State Sen. Trent Garner (R-Camden), who called for Griffen’s impeachment following last year’s protest, said Griffen’s vocal objection to capital punishment is one of many questionable actions and public statements made during Griffen’s tenure.

“Every lawyer, every judge should have the right to First Amendment speech. I think he should have certain latitude with that, but there’s also rules and duties that you have when you take the oath of office, or if you’re a lawyer,” Garner said.

Griffen told KUAR News it is that same right to free speech that proves his actions do not meet the standard of impeachable conduct.

“I have followed the law, including the law of Arkansas concerning capital punishment, even though I have moral and religious objections to it, because my oath of office does not compel me to agree with every law in order to follow it,” Griffen said, “nor does it keep me from being free from expressing or holding moral or religious opposition to laws that I consider unjust.” 

Republican Trent Garner of Arkansas Senate District 27.

Sen. Garner and Rep. Bob Ballinger (R-Berryville) both called for Griffen’s impeachment on Twitter Wednesday following his most recent protest. 

Hours before last year’s protest, Griffen issued a temporary restraining order barring the use of a lethal injection drug as part of a lawsuit alleging Arkansas prison officials obtained the drug illegally. Garner said those actions demonstrated a clear bias in Griffen’s jurisprudence. 

“If Judge Griffen really had this deep conviction, he should have recused himself from that case and let somebody else hear it,” Garner said. “But he had the direct cause between showing a court ruling that halted executions and then directly going to show a public display against that very issue he heard. It’s unacceptable.”

Though no criminal conduct is being alleged, Garner asserted that an ongoing ethics investigation into Griffen’s protest last year strengthens his argument that Griffen is not fit to serve on the state judiciary.

“If you look at the actual language of how to impeach in our constitution, there is a clause for gross misconduct in office,” Garner said. “I think it well meets the criteria for gross misconduct in office, especially weighed against his repeated showing of bias in the public sphere.”

However, Griffen said no legal precedent exists to impeach him, and that it is the public’s responsibility to remove judges through the election cycle.

“None of the people who are complaining have cited a single case from the United States Supreme Court that says that a judge cannot comment about popular, controversial public issues and at the same time be a judge,” Griffen said. “There is a United States Supreme Court case that dates back to 2002 that says exactly the opposite.”

Though the state legislature does not convene until next year, Garner says the speaker of the Arkansas House of Representatives can convene the full House outside of a regular session to bring the articles of impeachment against someone.

Griffen said he remains unconcerned over his possible removal from office, saying no judge in Arkansas has been impeached since receiving statehood in 1836.

“I haven’t given that a moment’s thought. I haven’t. The folks who are talking about impeachment, I’ll leave it to them to figure out how they’re going to do what’s never been done,” Griffen said. “Once they get past the big question of why in the world would you try to impeach somebody for doing what the Constitution tells them they have the right to do and following the law that they have an obligation to do?”