In­de­pen­dent lawyers to as­sess Grif­fen, jus­tices

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - NORTHWEST ARKANSAS - JOHN MORITZ

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.


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