Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen filed ethics complaints Wednesday against the seven Arkansas Supreme Court justices and Attorney General Leslie Rutledge over their roles in stripping his authority to hear death penalty cases.
Griffen said the justices wrongly sanctioned him on April 17 in response to allegations of misconduct that he was never told about until after the punishment was imposed.
The high court's decision to act on a complaint by the attorney general without giving Griffen the opportunity to tell his version of events violates the state Code of Judicial Conduct, according to his complaint, which was announced at a news conference.
"There is a fundamental unfairness about refusing to hear all sides," Griffen told reporters, reading from a prepared statement.
Griffen said he was duty-bound to take the actions of Rutledge and the justices -- Dan Kemp, Robin Wynne, Courtney Hudson Goodson, Jo Hart, Shawn Womack, Karen Baker and Rhonda Wood -- to the ethics authorities because of the way they acted together to punish him.
Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen, shown protesting at the Governor’s Mansion in April, said on his blog that he was portraying a crucified Jesus and that his hat covered “a black leather bound King James Version of the Bible, the book that my parents taught me to read and love as a child.”
"I have an ethical obligation under the Code of Judicial Conduct," Griffen said. "I have done my duty, and I will leave it up to others to do their duty."
The complaint against the justices goes to the state Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission, while the complaint against Rutledge and her staff was filed with the state Committee on Professional Conduct.
B̶o̶t̶h̶ ̶a̶r̶e̶ ̶a̶g̶e̶n̶c̶i̶e̶s̶ ̶o̶f̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ The committee is an agency of the Supreme Court and the commission is an independent agency*, and both conduct secretive investigations that result in public disclosure only if wrongdoing can be substantiated.
Griffen and his lawyers also said his decision to participate in a Good Friday "prayer vigil" in front of the Governor's Mansion was an appropriate exercise of the judge's First Amendment rights.
A photograph of Griffen lying on a cot with ropes wrapped around him was widely circulated, and the fact that he blocked the state from using one of its lethal-injection drugs shortly before the picture was taken drew intense criticism from some state officials.
No one asked him at the time what he was doing, Griffen said, and he rejected efforts to categorize his appearance strictly as a protest of the death penalty.
The Governor's Mansion event had been organized weeks earlier by the congregation of the New Millenium Church that he pastors, and he was making an expression of his faith, the judge said.
"I lay on a cot in solidarity with a dead Jesus," Griffen said, explaining that he was wearing an anti-death penalty button because Jesus of Nazareth had been executed.
Jesus' death had also come on the order of a governor, Pontius Pilate, the judge said.
"The Jesus I follow chose to stay among the condemned people," Griffen said. "The governor of Arkansas is in the same position as the governor of Palestine."
Griffen also rejected the idea that he must subjugate his constitutional right to freely express his religious beliefs to his duties as a judge. He can be both a devout Christian and uphold his legal obligations, Griffen told reporters.
"Are you saying I shouldn't have a prayer vigil because of what is on my [court] docket?" he said.
The justices' decision to cancel Griffen's authority to preside over execution-related litigation, including criminal capital-murder proceedings, was the result of a "clandestine and almost star chamber-like" process in which the high court never asked to hear the judge's version of events, said Mike Laux, a lawyer representing the judge.
Laux said the judge's complaints about Rutledge stem from her and her staff's efforts to have Griffen sanctioned without telling him what she was doing, despite a requirement that her office serve as legal counsel to the state's judges unless the attorney general can demonstrate a conflict of interest.
Rutledge effectively denied Griffen legal representation before the Supreme Court, said Michael Matthews, another Griffen lawyer.
She "went behind his back," so Griffen learned about her accusations only after the Supreme Court sanctioned him, Matthews told reporters.
"He only learned about it when the deed was done," the Florida-based attorney said.
The Rutledge staff members subject to Griffen's complaint are Solicitor General Lee Rudofsky, deputy solicitor Nicholas Bronni and senior assistant attorney general Colin Jorgensen.
Rutledge had petitioned the Supreme Court to remove the judge from presiding over an Easter weekend lawsuit filed against the state Department of Correction that accused the agency of duping medical supplier McKesson Medical-Surgical Inc. into providing one of the three drugs that have been used to put three condemned killers to death over the past week.
At McKesson's request, Griffen had imposed a temporary restraining order barring the state from using the vecuronium bromide it had purchased from McKesson until the judge could conduct a hearing on the rightful ownership of the chemicals.
Griffen's order was issued 72 hours before the state planned to use the vecuronium bromide in the first of four sets of two-man executions. The judge scheduled a hearing on the ownership question for the day after that first round of executions.
But the Supreme Court, acting on Rutledge's motion, canceled Griffen's order without comment.
Rutledge cited deficiencies in the McKesson complaint as grounds for the high court to overturn Griffen's ruling.
She also complained to the justices that Griffen's participation in what she described as two anti-death-penalty rallies about the same time he imposed the restraining order was "crystal clear" proof that he could not be impartial on death penalty issues.
Rutledge also cited personal writings by the judge in which he described the lethal-injection procedure as immoral.
Griffen's restraining order was both legal and reasonable, Laux said, telling reporters that describing the judge's decision as a stay of execution "could be considered misleading."
The judge had been petitioned to intervene in a "mundane contract" dispute that "tangentially related to the death penalty," Laux said.
A third Griffen attorney, Austin Porter Jr. of Little Rock, said the high court's decision to remove a black judge from presiding over a capital murder case could have federal ramifications.
Griffen holds one of five Pulaski County Circuit judgeships established in 1992 to settle a Voting Rights Act lawsuit that alleged black residents had been denied equitable representation in the judiciary.
Known as the Hunt decree for lead plaintiff Eugene Hunt, the court order created black-dominated voting precincts for judicial elections.
By sanctioning Griffen, the Supreme Court has left o̶n̶l̶y̶ ̶o̶n̶e̶ ̶b̶l̶a̶c̶k̶ ̶j̶u̶d̶g̶e̶ two black judges in Pulaski County to preside over capital murder cases. The other f̶o̶u̶r̶ three criminal court judges are white.
Metro on 04/27/2017
*CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly described the relationship between the state Supreme Court and the state Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission. The commission operates independently of the Supreme Court. The commission was established by voter-approved Amendment 66 of the state Constitution in 1988 to investigate allegations of ethical and professional misconduct among the judiciary and recommend disciplinary action to the Supreme Court. The story also incorrectly described the racial breakdown of the five Pulaski County Circuit Court judges who decided criminal cases. There are two black judges and three white judges.
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