An Arkansas judge under fire for participating in a death penalty protest after issuing an order blocking an execution says critics seeking his impeachment want to infringe on his rights as a Baptist pastor to express his religious beliefs.
The Arkansas House of Representatives passed a resolution May 3 amending rules allowing lawmakers to impeach a public official. The vote came two days after state Sen. Trent Garner (R-El Dorado) released a statement calling for impeachment of Pulaski County Judge Wendell Griffen for behavior after granting a temporary restraining order blocking the first of a string of executions scheduled to begin the day after Easter.
“On Good Friday, about an hour after he had made a critical ruling against the state that effectively halted the executions, Griffen strapped himself to a cot in front of the Governor’s mansion to protest the executions he had just stopped,” the senator said. “Making a public statement about a case in which he was still involved reeks of bias. Setting aside the merits of the case itself, Griffen attacked the integrity of our legal system by showing some parties can’t get a fair trial in his court.”
Garner, a member of Calvary Baptist Church in East Camden, Ark., said Griffen on many occasions “has shown that he is not fit to be on the bench.”
“Because of his gross misconduct in office, I am calling for the Arkansas House of Representatives to bring an article of impeachment against Judge Wendell Griffen,” Garner said. “He should never again be allowed to hold office of any sort in Arkansas. We as the General Assembly can remove the stain that Griffen has left on our judicial integrity.”
Griffen, pastor of Cooperative Baptist Fellowship-aligned New Millennium Church in Little Rock, said in a personal blog May 3 the politicians seeking his removal took the same oath of office he did, pledging to uphold the Constitution of the United States.
“The First Amendment guarantees my freedom to express my religious beliefs as a follower of Jesus, whether politicians like my beliefs or not,” Griffen said.
Though Wednesday’s House vote did not mention Griffen by name, the pastor said the politicians behind it “disapprove of what I have written about morality, social justice, law and public policy in my blog.” Griffen reminded his political opponents that freedoms enshrined in the Constitution are important “especially when we disagree.’
“Political officeholders have the right to disagree with what others say and do,” Griffen said. “We have no right to use our offices to punish or threaten people for exercising their right to disagree with us.”
“Whenever that happens, the word we use is tyranny,” he said.
The state Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission is investigating whether Griffen’s decision to join other members of his church at the Good Friday vigil violated judicial ethics. Griffen asked the panel on April 26 to investigate the Arkansas Supreme Court and attorney general, saying they removed him from the death penalty case without due process.
The Arkansas Department of Corrections recently executed four men in eight days in a race to beat the expiration date on one of three drugs used in the state’s lethal injection protocol. The state had planned to execute eight men in 11 days, but four were blocked by court orders.
Griffen’s order, temporarily halting the first of the scheduled deaths, said a pharmaceutical company offered evidence to show it would probably win a lawsuit claiming the state obtained one of its products under false pretenses.
Witnesses to the April 27 execution of inmate Kenneth Williams said his body lurched and convulsed during the procedure, prompting some to label it a botched execution. The governor’s office called the twitches an “involuntary muscular reaction” and not an indication of pain.
Garner, a witness to the Williams execution, told a local TV station that as a combat veteran who served two tours in Afghanistan, he saw “many people die in very painful fashions.”
“From seeing those deaths, compared to what I saw last night, were night and day,” the senator told Little Rock CBS affiliate KATV. “There was no pain.”
Judge disputes claims that his death penalty protest violated judicial impartiality