- Associated Press - Saturday, May 6, 2017

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - A judge’s decision to participate in an anti-death penalty demonstration the same day he effectively blocked executions was already on track to become the latest chapter in his long-running fight over free speech rights for those on the bench. A potential effort by lawmakers to remove the judge from office has expanded it into an even more politically charged battle between the legislative and judicial branches.

The House’s approval last week of rules outlining procedures for impeachment was a warning from the Republican Legislature that it’s preparing to take action against Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen, who’s already been removed from handling any death penalty related cases. House leaders say the new rules address a concern that’s arisen in recent years about the lack of specifics in the state’s constitution on the impeachment process.

“I would not propose we do something in our House rules because of one individual or citizen in the state of Arkansas,” Speaker Jeremy Gillam told House members last week.

The House’s move drew complaints from some lawmakers that this was a thinly veiled attempt to begin impeachment proceedings, and also prompted questions why ethical lapses by other judges didn’t prompt similar efforts to clarify the rules.

“If this is really about impeaching Judge Griffen, let’s be courageous as a body, let’s be honest as a body and say that’s what we’re doing,” Democratic Rep. Vivian Flowers said. “And then address it appropriately, not come down here and file a resolution the day before it’s to be addressed without any opportunity for any of us to be a part of the process or discussion.”

The rules came after Republican lawmakers had criticized Griffen, who last month issued an order blocking Arkansas from using one of its lethal injection drugs after a medical supply company said it had been duped by state officials. After issuing the order, Griffen was seen at an anti-death penalty demonstration outside the governor’s mansion. Griffen lay down strapped to a cot, which evoked the image of a condemned inmate awaiting lethal injection. Critics in the Legislature have called Griffen’s actions judicial misconduct that may warrant removal from office.

Griffen has cast the fight as one over his First Amendment right to practice his religion, saying he was portraying Jesus when strapped to the cot and participating in a Good Friday vigil with his church. Photos showed Griffen wearing an anti-death penalty button and surrounded by people holding signs opposing the state’s executions. He’s bristled at the notion that he shouldn’t have participated in the vigil after issuing his order.

“Because then what you’re saying is I cannot live out my faith unless I check my docket,” Griffen said.

The Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission is investigating Griffen after the state Supreme Court barred him from hearing any death penalty related cases. But the panel is also investigating a complaint Griffen filed in response - accusing the high court of taking action without giving him a chance to respond. A similar complaint Griffen filed against Attorney General Leslie Rutledge is also under investigation by the Committee on Professional Conduct, which considers complaints against lawyers.

Griffen has tangled with the judicial commission in the past over the free speech rights of judges. Griffen, who served 12 years on the state Court of Appeals, previously battled with the panel over remarks he made criticizing President George W. Bush and the war in Iraq. The panel ultimately dropped its case against him. Griffen, however, has continued to draw the ire of conservatives over his outspokenness on issues, including his opposition to a religious objections measure two years ago. He also blogs regularly on current events, and used a post last week to push back against the impeachment talk in the Legislature.

“We have no right to use our offices to punish or threaten people for exercising their right to disagree with us,” Griffen wrote.

Depending on how far lawmakers want to go, that disagreement could dominate the Legislature’s attention in the coming months.

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Andrew DeMillo has covered Arkansas government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo


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