Independent lawyers to assess Griffen, justices
Independent attorneys have been hired to look into cross complaints against Pulaski County Judge Wendell Griffen and the Arkansas Supreme Court, the Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission announced late Friday.
The attorneys, Rachel Michel of Mississippi and J. Brent Standridge of Benton, were chosen by the nine-member commission after both of the agency’s full-time lawyers recused from the cases in May.
The cases assigned to the independent counsel revolve around competing complaints filed by both Griffen and the high court against each other in April, when Griffen was sanctioned from hearing any cases involving the death penalty in response to his outspokenness on the subject.
Griffen has defended his actions, saying they are examples of freedom of speech and the exercise of religion, even as they coincided with his unsuccessful judicial order to halt a series of planned executions.
In his own complaint against the seven justices of the Supreme Court, Griffen alleges he was not given a chance to respond to allegations before being sanctioned by the court.
Michel and Standridge will each take on one side of the complaints, according to Commission Counsel Marie-Bernarde Miller, but it hasn’t been decided yet who will take on which side.
According to a news release issued Friday, Michel is a senior staff attorney for the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance, which Miller likened to the Arkansas commission’s counterpart in the Magnolia State.
Standridge formerly served as the chief deputy prosecuting attorney for Saline, Grant and Hot Spring counties, according to the news release. He also has been appointed three times to serve as a special associate justice to the Arkansas Supreme Court.
Both attorneys were asked and agreed to work pro bono, Miller said. The commission agreed to provide one of its attorneys to Mississippi should a similar conflict in the state require outside counsel in the future, she added.
In May, David Sachar, the executive director of the Arkansas commission, and Deputy Director Emily White both recused after former Supreme Court Chief Justice Howard Brill advised in a letter their participation in the cases would likely present a conflict of interest.
Brill noted that as chief justice, he was a part of frequent communication with the commission regarding active cases involving state judges, and that Griffen’s complaint named the entire Supreme Court bench.
The former top judge is now a law professor at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville specializing in legal ethics.
“It is my belief that both of you are caught in an unacceptable dilemma with these allegations,” Brill wrote in his three-page letter.
While Michel and Standridge will not be paid for their work, they will each have access to a $4,000 stipend to use to investigate or prosecute their cases, Miller said.
They will have 18 months to gather facts, conduct interviews and conclude their investigations, Miller said.
Following their investigation, either attorney can dismiss the case, negotiate an agreement or recommend charges be brought before the nine-member commission for a trial.
Meanwhile, several Republican lawmakers at the state Capitol have already expressed a desire to see Griffen impeached if they find the commission does not impose an acceptable punishment.
The ire of lawmakers reached a peak shortly after Griffen participated in an anti-death penalty protest in April, the same day he issued his order blocking the state from using one of its execution drugs.
Griffen’s order was later reversed by the state Supreme Court, and Arkansas ended up carrying out four of eight planned executions.
Griffen also has continued to push back against the Legislature, attending a rally organized to defend him on the steps of the state Capitol last month.