The Arkansas Supreme Court won’t restore the authority of a circuit judge who also serves as pastor of a Baptist church to decide death-penalty cases, and the state’s top lawyer wants him barred from any civil cases involving her office in separate but intertwined controversies that began with a prayer vigil protesting capital punishment on Good Friday in 2017.
The Supreme Court on Thursday denied Judge Wendell Griffen’s petition to restore his power to hear and decide cases involving the death penalty and method of execution. The same court stripped him of that authority on April 17, 2017, after Griffen temporarily restrained the use of an execution drug in a case involving a property dispute before attending an anti-death penalty demonstration near the governor’s mansion with fellow members of New Millennium Church in Little Rock.
Griffen, founding pastor of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship-affiliated church, recently asked the Supreme Court justices to recuse themselves from the case, claiming bias. The high court denied that request without comment on Aug. 2.
Attorney General Leslie Rutledge – who in 2017 asked the Supreme Court to disqualify Griffen from hearing cases involving the death penalty – on Wednesday petitioned the body to reverse a ruling against her office handed down last week by Judge Griffen in a licensing dispute over medical marijuana.
Rutledge, a Republican sworn into office in 2015, accused Griffen of bias and belligerent behavior against the Attorney General’s Office and asked the high court to remove him from the cannabis case and bar him from hearing any future civil cases involving her lawyers.
“Judge Griffen has a long history of unprofessional, improper and biased conduct in cases involving the Attorney General’s Office and cannot be considered remotely impartial in cases involving the Attorney General’s Office,” the Sept. 17 petition said in part.
Griffen, who formerly served on the Arkansas Court of Appeals, last week rejected the Attorney General’s claim of “sovereign immunity” – a judicial doctrine the prevents the government from being sued without its consent – in a lawsuit challenging the process used to issue the state’s first medical-marijuana growing licenses.
In 2016, Arkansas voters amended the state constitution to legalize medical marijuana. The Arkansas Medical Marijuana Commission named the top five applicants to be awarded the first round of licenses in 2018.
Carpenter Farms Medical Group in Grady, Arkansas – the only applicant wholly owned by minorities – had the sixth-highest score but was disqualified, reportedly because of an error on its application form. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported later that one of the winning applicants made the same mistake, but it apparently went undetected.
Carpenter Farms is a well-known small business started by an African-American woman selling vegetables out of a one-acre garden she planted in 1969. Today, the family business operates more than 1,000 acres, is touted as a success story by the United States Department of Agriculture and has been nominated as Arkansas Business of the Year.
The lawsuit before Griffen claims the Medical Marijuana Commission “carried out the application process in a flawed, biased, and arbitrary and capricious manner, and that the commissioners failed to uniformly apply their rules when scoring the applications.” Judge Griffen went further, finding the process in violation of the Arkansas constitution and declaring the commission’s licensing decisions null and void.
The Attorney General’s petition stems from an exchange between Griffen and Senior Assistant Attorney General Jennifer Merritt in a hearing last Friday, described in the court filing as “just one recent example of Judge Griffen’s unprofessional and unjudicial conduct.”
“Judge Griffen has for years exhibited a pattern and practice of injudicious conduct that establishes he lacks impartiality, judicial temperament, and an ability to fairly adjudicate cases involving the Attorney General’s Office,” the petition alleges.
“Multiple Assistant Attorneys General who have appeared in his court have reported that Judge Griffen regularly yells at them, refuses to allow them to make a record or preserve arguments for appeal, belligerently argues with state attorneys and state witnesses, rules against the state despite a preponderance of the evidence and/or controlling case law in its favor, and imposes unfair requirements (such as unreasonably shortening time) in their cases,” the petition claims.
“When state attorneys attempt to do their jobs and advocate for their clients, Judge Griffen routinely erupts in anger, treating the lawyers’ advocacy for their clients as personal attacks on his authority as the trial judge.”
Griffen’s attorney, Mike Laux, attributed the claim to thin skin and political posturing.
“The Attorney General’s office needs to speak in terms of the law and not in terms of hurt feelings,” Laux said on social media. “In reality, Judge Griffen is a smart, well-read and evenly-tempered jurist who treats fairly all litigants before him.”
“No one can credibly say otherwise,” Laux said. “Might you get an earful if you come before him unprepared? Yes, you might, but that’s part of the game. The AG’s ill-advised motion smacks of politics.”
The Arkansas Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission in June dismissed ethics charges stemming from Judge Griffen’s death-penalty protest in 2017. Griffen – photographed lying motionless on a cot at a prayer vigil, he said, “in solidarity with Jesus, the leader of our religion who was put to death by crucifixion by the Roman Empire” – claimed being a judge does not prevent him from freely exercising his religion and that speaking out on social issues does not mean he cannot be impartial while ruling from the bench.