Legal Ethics

Judge pulled from Arkansas execution cases accuses state's AG and Supreme Court of ethics violations

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When Arkansas planned to execute eight inmates in 11 days, state judge Wendell Griffen was one of several on the federal and state levels to block the executions—in his case because a drug manufacturer objected to the use of its product.

On the same afternoon, he participated in a rally against the executions.

That activism, and other public comments, resulted in Griffen being removed from the case by Arkansas authorities. But the Associated Press and NBC News reported that Griffen raised objections, writing a letter to state lawyer and judicial regulators that Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge and the Arkansas Supreme Court violated ethics rules when they disqualified him without giving him a chance to respond.

“There is something fundamentally unfair about refusing to hear all parties to a dispute,” Griffen said at a news conference.

On April 14, Griffen ruled in favor of drugmaker McKesson Medical-Surgical, which said the state indicated it was buying vercuronium bromide for inmate care but used it as one of the ingredients in the state’s three-drug lethal-injection cocktail. Later that day, Griffen participated in a protest outside the governor’s mansion and was photographed lying on a cot, surrounded by people with signs opposing the death penalty.

Because of that protest and other public comments critical of capital punishment, Rutledge petitioned to remove Griffen from the case. The state Supreme Court did so, reversed his order and removed him from all other death penalty cases.

Griffen said he was portraying Jesus, not a condemned prisoner, as part of a Good Friday prayer vigil with his church. At his press conference, Griffen said his removal from the case suggests that “I cannot live out my faith unless I check my docket.” In prior statements, he said his moral opposition to the death penalty should not by itself disqualify him from hearing cases.

In a letter to judicial and attorney regulators, Griffen wrote that Rutledge should have notified him that he needed to retain his own attorney, since judges are normally represented by the state Attorney General.

Stark Ligon, director of the state Committee on Professional Conduct, told the AP that an attorney would investigate. The Arkansas Supreme Court did not immediately comment to the AP or NBC News. Judd Deere, a spokesman for Rutledge, told NBC News “the Attorney General will review the letter in time and if necessary respond in the appropriate venue.”

The judge who replaced Griffen also blocked the execution; that ruling was also overturned by the state Supreme Court, leading to the first execution in Arkansas in 12 years. Altogether, the state has put four people to death this week. Weeks ago, ABA President Linda Klein wrote a letter (PDF) to Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson opposing the unprecedentedly accelerated series of executions citing due process concerns.

Griffen was previously investigated, but ultimately not disciplined, for criticizing former President George W. Bush’s decision to go to war in Iraq.

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