Controversial judge lands big win in Supreme Court ruling

By John O'Brien | Jan 26, 2007

Judge Wendell Griffen

LITTLE ROCK -- The Arkansas public will finally get to hear the charges against outspoken Appeals Court Judge Wendell Griffen, the Arkansas Supreme Court has ruled.

In a unanimous ruling handed down late yesterday in Judge Wendell Griffen vs. Arkansas Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission (No. 06-1392) the Court granted Griffen's petition for a "writ of mandamus." The writ forces his accuser, the Judicial Commission (JC), to open his probable cause meeting to the public and news media.

Griffen must answer charges at the meeting that he breached judicial canon last year by publicly commenting on political and social events beyond his responsibilities as a judge. Griffen countered that the restrictions against such speech breached his right to free speech and religious expression.

Griffen's statements at issue criticized, among others, President Bush, Vice President Cheney and Chief Justice John Roberts. He also spoke out against the Iraq war and in favor of a minimum-wage rise.

The SC stayed the Judicial Commission's original hearing set for Jan. 19 pending yesterday's ruling. That meeting would have determined "whether there is probable cause to proceed to a formal disciplinary hearing and, if not, whether to admonish Judge Griffen or require an 'adjustment' in his conduct." Griffen had previously waived his right to confidentiality to try to make the hearing public.

The threat of admonishment resulting from such a meeting appeared to trouble the Supreme Court most in granting Griffen's request. The threat "adds a new dimension to the proceeding and appears to this court to militate in favor of openness, should the judge desire it," wrote Justice Robert L. Brown in the court opinion.

The Court cited an amendment to the state constitution that judges facing a reprimand must first receive a "hearing," which "indicates an open proceeding," Brown added. He also noted that Griffen's previous probable cause hearing, in 2002, was open whereas the JC this time insisted on it being closed.

"There be a dire need to clarify our Rules of Procedure in connection with the matters raised in this case," Brown added. He called on the JC to bring reform proposals to the Supreme Court.

Griffen last year ran unsuccessfully for a vacancy on the Arkansas Supreme Court in a non-partisan election, in the midst of controversy surrounding some of his public comments. He lost to Justice Paul Danielson by a margin of 57 percent to 43 percent.

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