If there is a single statewide figure responsible for finally getting Arkansas some clear rules and regulations for impeaching its public officials, it's got to be the well-known if not notorious Hon./Rev. Wendell L. Griffen, counselor-at-law and general embarrassment. It was his stunts on the bench and off, in the pulpit and out, that finally drove this state's Legislature at its last session to codify the state's rules for impeaching public officials.
The state's superannuated constitution (adopted in 1874 and amended at least 90 times since) has long been a work in progress or maybe regress. That constitution gave the Legislature the authority to impeach the state's officials but didn't say how that authority was to be exercised. It is Brother Griffen's excesses that have finally driven the General Assembly to replace its ad-hoc rages at some all too deserving officials with a clear way to get rid of them. Thank you, Judge Griffen, for they also serve who only disgrace their offices. May you be the next to go.
Let's also hear it for Trent Garner, a state senator from El Dorado who pushed these changes into law, and they now replace the old non-system of impeachment. "I've been tracking Judge Griffen's radical action for the last couple years," said Senator Garner, but he could have gone back many years to find evidence that, as a judge, Wendell Griffen has been much more of an advocate. Whatever impartiality is, Judge Griffen has provided a classic illustration of its opposite. By one count, this is the third time he's found specious reasons to rule against the death penalty that is provided by black-letter Arkansas law. Whether one is for or against the death penalty, it's clear that the law of this state provides for one.
Howard Brill is the former chief justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court who literally wrote the book on this subject--Arkansas Professional and Judicial Ethics--and, as he notes, extra-judicial activities are allowed by Rule 3.1 of the Arkansas Code of Judicial Conduct, but only so long as they do not undermine a judge's "independence, integrity and impartiality." A post-script holds that judges who speak out on social or political issues issues should weigh the effect of their statements and consider recusing from cases when necessary. But far from recusing himself from controversial issues, Judge Griffen has dived into them with all-considered abandon.
The proper remedy for such misbehavior, Brother Brill advises, is to appeal to a higher court. But what if the jurist challenges its jurisdiction and even drags every member of that court into legal proceedings, claiming they are all part of a sinister conspiracy against him? Which is just what Wendell Griffen and his team of legal advisers have done. Those who try to describe all these shenanigans as impartial and unprejudiced justice must not have been paying attention to the news for years.
Wherever this judge named Wendell Griffen goes, confusion and consternation are more than likely to follow. And at last legislators driven beyond distraction by his antics have chosen to do something more sensible than just fume at such misconduct. They've chosen to regularize the impeachment process in response to Judge Griffen's years of irregularities. Good for them.
Howard Brill, gentleman and legal scholar that he is, can be the soul of diplomacy as well, as shown by his comments on the latest brouhaha inspired by what has become a familiar question by now: What should Arkansas do about Wendell Griffen? Ignoring him hasn't worked and barring him from ruling on capital cases isn't likely to do the trick, either. But at least, like the state's Legislature, its attorney general has gone on record against Judge Griffen and in favor of the obvious, having said some time ago that the judge should have recused himself from capital cases because he's a "public opponent of capital punishment."
The state's Legislature may have succeeded in shaming some other public officials into resigning when they were caught disgracing their offices. Remember the sad cases of thankfully former Governor Jim Guy Tucker and former Lieutenant Governor Mark Darr? But how shame a judge as shameless as Wendell Griffen? It's a problem, but not an insoluble one, not with proper procedures now in place and ready to start when a public official proves as stubborn as Wendell Griffen. The state's patience with him may have run out at last, and let's hope his time in office has, too.
Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer and columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Editorial on 05/10/2017
Print Headline: Prepared at last