LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — A judicial disciplinary panel charged an Arkansas judge on Friday with ethics violations for lying down on a cot during an anti-death penalty demonstration the same day he blocked the state from using an execution drug, a move that could result in his suspension or removal from office.
A three-member panel of the Arkansas Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission filed the formal charges against Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen, who was photographed on a cot outside the governor's mansion last year wearing an anti-death penalty button and surrounded by people holding signs opposing executions. Earlier that day, Griffen blocked the state from using a lethal injection drug over claims the company had been misled by the state.
Though the image appeared to mimic a condemned inmate awaiting lethal injection, Griffen, who is also a Baptist pastor, has said he was portraying Jesus and participating in a prayer vigil. The panel cited his participation in the demonstration, as well as comments he had made online and on social media against the death penalty.
"Judge Griffen holds a right to free speech, but once Judge Griffen asserted his free speech in unequivocal opposition to the death penalty, he had an obligation to disqualify himself in every case effecting the death penalty," the panel said in its statement of allegations.
Days after the demonstration last year, the state Supreme Court removed Griffen from the drug case and prohibited him from handling any execution-related cases. Griffen in April re-enacted his demonstration outside the governor's mansion during a vigil to mark the one-year anniversary of the four executions Arkansas carried out last year.
Griffen has 30 days to respond to the charges and will have a hearing before the full, nine-member commission. The commission can recommend the state Supreme Court suspend or remove Griffen if it finds he violated judicial rules of conduct. The panel could also issue a public admonishment, reprimand or censure the judge.
An attorney for Griffen criticized the panel's decision to charge Griffen.
"We are disappointed by today's announcement, but not surprised," Mike Laux, an attorney for Griffen, said in an email. "We question the thoroughness of the investigation, as well as the impartiality of the ad hoc JDDC panel assembled to review the matter. We will elaborate on this on Monday."
Griffen has claimed the disqualification violated his constitutional rights. The state's seven Supreme Court justices are appealing a federal judge's ruling that allows Griffen's lawsuit against them over the disqualification to proceed.