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Ark. appeals judge faces discipline for speaking out

By The Associated Press
04.25.07

Editor’s note: Judge Wendell Griffen sued the Arkansas Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission in federal court on July 20, saying a hearing scheduled for Aug. 23-24 over his public comments would violate his constitutional rights. Griffen’s suit asks the federal court to force the commission to rescind its charges against him, and to bar the commission from taking any “further or retaliatory action” against him. The case was assigned to U.S. District Judge James M. Moody after two other judges recused themselves.

LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas Appeals Court Judge Wendell Griffen said yesterday that charges filed against him for speaking out on President Bush, immigration and other issues should be tossed because his comments were protected by the First Amendment.

Griffen responded to a state disciplinary panel’s charges, filed the day before, that accuse him of violating the judicial code of conduct for sharing his personal views on several issues.

The Arkansas Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission last month decided to bring formal charges against Griffen and hold a full public hearing on whether he violated the rules governing judges.

Griffen said in an interview yesterday that his comments are also backed by a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision. That decision, Republican Party of Minnesota v. White, struck down a Minnesota rule barring judicial candidates from speaking out on “disputed legal or political issues.”

Griffen yesterday said the commission was violating that order and compared it to the state resisting desegregation in the 1950s.

“This is really sad that our state should be portrayed as being unwilling to obey the United States’ Constitution in 2007 after all we’ve tried to do to get past 1957,” the year that Little Rock Central High School was desegregated, Griffen said.

James Badami, the commission’s executive director, dismissed Griffen’s comments and said the 2002 ruling did not apply to Arkansas’ judicial rules.

“His comments to the relationship between what happened in 1957 and this case are just misplaced,” Badami said.

The full commission hearing is expected to be held in late June or early July. The panel could dismiss the charges, issue a reprimand or censure, or recommend to the Arkansas Supreme Court that Griffen be suspended or removed from office.

The charges filed against Griffen cite five incidents dating to 2005 and 2006 as evidence of misconduct. They include a 2005 speech he made criticizing the Bush administration’s handling of Hurricane Katrina and a statement he made last year supporting an increase in Arkansas’ minimum wage.

The panel also cited comments he made against the war in Iraq and against critics of immigrants and homosexuals.

The commission charged Griffen with conduct “prejudiced to the administration of justice” and with “willful violation” of the Code of Judicial Conduct.

Griffen, who is seeking re-election in 2008, said he believed Badami and the commission were attempting to “bully” him and hurt him politically by filing the charges.

“The idea behind these complaints is to create an unfavorable attitude about me in the minds of the voting public,” Griffen said.

Badami said he filed the charges against Griffen at the direction of the commission and denied that they were political.

“The commission has no interest in who runs for judicial office and who doesn’t run. That is not what we’re about,” Badami said. “We’re concerned about the integrity of the system and that the public has confidence in the judges and the judicial system.”

In the nine-page filing yesterday, Griffen also said the commission’s probable cause hearing violated his due-process rights. He accused Commission Chairman Michael Gott of “intemperate and discourteous conduct” during last month’s hearing.

Griffen said the accusation stemmed from Gott shouting at the judge at one point during the hearing.

Gott declined to comment on Griffen’s filing.


Update
Panel drops case against outspoken Ark. judge
But Wendell Griffen says he will continue to pursue federal lawsuit challenging judicial code of ethics under which he was accused. 09.24.07

Previous
Arkansas high court tosses reprimand of appellate judge
Justices say standard used to punish Wendell Griffen for criticizing university's lack of racial diversity 'intrudes on legitimate free speech.' 11.21.03

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