Judge protesting death penalty faces discipline
Two inmates granted stays as legal battles continue
A state judge who railed against the death penalty at protest rallies while he blocked executions in his courtroom ran afoul of the Arkansas Supreme Court on Monday as the legal fight over a planned spate of executions continued into the night.
The state high court barred Pulaski County Circuit Court Judge Wendell Griffen from hearing cases involving executions, capital punishment and the state’s lethal injection protocol, then referred him to the Arkansas Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission.
Judge Griffen lost the battle, but he may have won the war: The Arkansas high court also granted stays of execution to the two convicted murderers scheduled to be put to death by lethal injection Monday, Bruce Ward and Don Davis.
The rulings threw into limbo the state’s plan to execute as
many as eight inmates before the April 30 expiration of its supply of midazolam, a sedative used in the three-drug protocol.
By the end of the business day, the stays were all that stopped Arkansas from carrying out the sentences as planned after Attorney General Leslie Rutledge managed to vacate last-minute orders issued by two courts blocking the executions.
Ms. Rutledge won a major victory by persuading the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to vacate a preliminary injunction issued Saturday by a federal judge against the whole execution slate, as well as a ruling by the Arkansas Supreme Court upending Judge Griffen’s temporary restraining order released Friday.
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced late Monday that he had filed an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court to lift the federal blocks on the executions. Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. is the justice for the 8th Circuit.
“Today, the 8th Circuit ruled the state could proceed with the death penalty sentence and expressed no concern over the execution schedule and the legislatively mandated means to carry out the lethal injection protocol,” Mr. Hutchinson said in a statement.
“However, the State Supreme Court went a different direction and ruled that the execution of Don Davis and Bruce Ward could not proceed based upon the potential of some future direction of the U.S. Supreme Court that is unknown at the present time,” he said.
Judge Griffen came under fire over the weekend after he allowed himself to be strapped to a cot in a simulation of a prisoner awaiting execution in a Friday protest of the state’s rapid 11-day timetable, even though he ruled on the executions the same day.
“To protect the integrity of the judicial system this court has a duty to ensure that all are given a fair and impartial tribunal,” the Arkansas Supreme Court said in its order. “We find it necessary to immediately reassign all cases in the Fifth Division that involve the death penalty or the state’s execution protocol, whether civil or criminal.”
Judge Griffen had made no secret of his antipathy toward the death penalty, or his positions on a host of other hot-button topics, including President Trump, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the North Carolina bathroom bill, voter ID requirements, “white Christian nationalism” and “abusive and homicidal police conduct.”
“While the world meditates about divine love, forgiveness, justice and hope, Arkansas officials plan to commit a series of homicides,” the judge said in a post last week on his blog, Justice is a Verb!
The 64-year-old judge, who was elected in 2010 and re-elected last year without opposition, did not immediately return a request Monday for comment, but previously defended his decision to participate in Friday’s protests in Little Rock.
“We have never, in my knowledge, been so afraid to admit that people can have personal beliefs yet can follow the law, even when to follow the law means they have to place their personal feelings aside,” Judge Griffen told The Associated Press.
There may be additional sanctions in store for the judge. Arkansas state Sen. Jason Rapert said that the state legislature is discussing impeachment proceedings.
“I can tell you that the Senate has been notified that there are discussions regarding a potential filing of impeachment articles by the Arkansas House of Representatives,” Mr. Rapert said. “If that were to occur, each of the 35 senators in our Senate would basically serve as jurors to hear those impeachment articles.”
He said a two-thirds vote of the Senate is required to accept the articles of impeachment. Republicans control both legislative houses, but he said the party is one vote shy of a two-thirds majority in the Senate.
Mr. Rapert, a Republican, said the judge’s reputation for questionable judicial conduct precedes him.
“He has a very long history of these sort of things on varying topics,” Mr. Rapert said. “It’s just one of those things where I think people have finally had enough.”
A favorite target of Judge Griffen’s in recent months has been Mr. Trump.
“Donald Trump’s conduct is typical for a sociopath. We should not pretend otherwise,” Judge Griffen said in an Oct. 12 post. “The people who profess moral outrage about his conduct now while ignoring his penchant for bullying, misogyny, racism, bigotry, and economic violence are hypocrites.”
The former pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Judge Griffen still speaks from the pulpit.
In a Feb. 5 sermon at First Presbyterian Church in Little Rock, which was posted on his blog, he said the “greatest threat to justice in the United States, and now the world, is heretical white Christian nationalism.”
“Refugees seeking asylum in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world are suffering because of the imperial aspirations of white Christian nationalism,” he said. “Women, persons who are LGBTQ, racial and religious minorities, persons with frail health, and people vulnerable because of militarized law enforcement are threatened.”
While his politics are certainly left of center, the judge and former pastor has weighed in on occasion against Democrats, albeit on the grounds of insufficient leftism.
“Can we handle the truth that the Congressional Black Caucus, like almost every other national politician (including politicians across the ideological spectrum) appears to be controlled by the pro-Israeli government lobbying, journalistic, and policy lobby?” Judge Griffen asked in a Sept. 5 post on Facebook.
“This also appears to be sadly true for many black religious organizations and leaders [across] the U.S.,” he said. “The Black Lives Matter movement is a welcome and long-needed alternative.”