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Panel drops case against outspoken Ark. judge

By The Associated Press

Editor’s note: On Oct. 25, U.S. District Judge David S. Doty dismissed Judge Wendell Griffen’s lawsuit against the Arkansas Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission. In his ruling, Doty said Griffen hadn’t demonstrated “a real and immediate threat of repeated injury nor shown any continuing present adverse effects.” Griffen later asked Doty to vacate his ruling, but Doty rejected that request on Feb. 11, 2008. Doty is from Minnesota; all the federal district judges in Arkansas recused themselves from the case.

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — A panel that disciplines judges dropped its case late last week against Arkansas Appeals Court Judge Wendell Griffen, who was cited for his comments on political issues such as the minimum wage and the war in Iraq.

The Arkansas Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission voted 5-1 on Sept. 21 to accept a lower panel’s recommendation last month to drop the case on grounds that Griffen has a constitutional right to speak out and shouldn’t be sanctioned by the state.

“It’s about time,” Griffen said.

David Stewart, executive director of the commission, declined to comment after the ruling.

Griffen has tangled with the commission over his public remarks since 2002, and the case dropped Sept. 21 stemmed from remarks he made in 2005 and last year. The comments included 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 commission had also cited comments Griffen made against the war in Iraq and against critics of immigrants and homosexuals.

Griffen had said the commission was violating his constitutional rights and said the panel was ignoring the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2002 decision in Republican Party of Minnesota v. White, which struck down a Minnesota rule barring judicial candidates from speaking out on disputed legal or political issues.

Stewart said earlier last week that Griffen’s case would probably change the way the commission views political speech by judges.

“I think it’s certainly been clarified,” Stewart said. “That’s the important thing. ... As candidates and judges look to the guidelines of what is permissible, I think it has been appropriately clarified what those limits now are.”

Griffen, however, has a lawsuit pending in federal court challenging the judicial code of ethics under which he was accused.

Griffen said after last week’s ruling that he intends to continue with that lawsuit because he believes there is still a danger that judges could be sanctioned for speaking out on issues.

“People have got to understand that a person does not become less human when he or she raises a hand and takes the oath to become a judge,” he said.

Griffen said he did not understand why the commission had targeted comments he had made in public speeches and columns he had written.

“At one point, you have to admit there is a certain intolerance of freedom of speech, even within a profession that is supposed to safeguard freedom of speech,” Griffen said. “That is not a comforting thought.”

Jim Badami, who retired as the commission’s director earlier this year and had pursued the case against Griffen over the past two years, declined to comment on the commission’s ruling.

“I’m no longer the spokesperson for the commission, therefore it would be inappropriate for me to make any comment,” Badami said.

Badami first brought a complaint against Griffen in 2002, after the judge had commented on the University of Arkansas’ history of hiring and promoting blacks, following Nolan Richardson’s dismissal as Razorback basketball coach.

The judicial commission admonished Griffen over those remarks, but the state Supreme Court dismissed the complaint.

Don Judges, a law professor at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, said the commission’s decision vindicates Griffen’s right to speak on political issues but said the rules for judges must be clarified to include those protections.

“I don’t think that the outcome in this case provides the same level of protection and avoidance of a potential chilling effect that a judicial ruling would or a modification of the rules,” Judges said.

The Arkansas Bar Association has appointed a task force of lawyers and judges to recommend changes in the state’s judicial rules. Howard Brill, a University of Arkansas legal ethics professor and the task force chairman, said the group hoped to make recommendations to the state Supreme Court in 2008.

Ark. judge who waged free-speech fight is voted off bench
Wendell Griffen lost decisively to juvenile court judge who credited Griffen's anti-Bush, anti-war comments in part for her victory. 05.21.08

Ark. appeals judge faces discipline for speaking out
Wendell Griffen says panel's charges should be tossed because his comments about President Bush, immigration and other issues were protected by First Amendment. 04.25.07


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

Judicial campaign speech

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