LITTLE ROCK — A disciplinary panel said Friday that Arkansas Supreme Court justices don't have to testify in an ethics hearing over a judge's participation in an anti-death penalty demonstration the same day he blocked the state from using a lethal injection drug.
The Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission granted justices' request to block their testimony in next week's hearing against Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen. Griffen was charged with violating judicial rules after he was photographed in 2017 lying on a cot outside the governor's mansion wearing an anti-death penalty button and surrounded by people holding signs opposing executions. The demonstration occurred the same day Griffen blocked the use of a lethal injection drug over claims officials had misled the company that supplied it.
Days after the demonstration, the court prohibited Griffen from hearing any execution-related cases.
In its ruling, the commission said the testimony Griffen sought was protected by judicial privilege and that the justices had no personal knowledge of the matter before the commission. The panel also said the subpoena was seeking to re-litigate Griffen's lawsuit against the court, which was dismissed.
Mike Laux, Griffen's attorney, said a privilege protecting the justices from testifying shouldn't be recognized in the case and said three justices are material witnesses based on testimony that they contacted the commission's director after Griffen's demonstration.
"Judge Griffen is being kneecapped," Laux wrote in an email.
The commission also denied Griffen's motion to dismiss his case. The judge's attorneys had argued the commission violated its rules requiring complaints be dismissed if they're not disposed of within 18 months of being received by the panel. Laux challenged the calculation the panel used to determine the 18-month mark, including its argument that clock began May 1.
"There is no reasonable explanation for this. We are looking into addressing this unfair ruling," Laux wrote.
Griffen has said his order about the lethal injection drug was based on the law, not his personal beliefs, and that his participation in the demonstration was constitutionally protected. Griffen's hearing is scheduled to begin Thursday. The commission could recommend the State Supreme Court suspend or remove the judge if it finds he violated judicial rules of conduct.