LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — A disciplinary panel filed ethics charges Thursday against six Arkansas Supreme Court justices over their decision to prohibit a judge who participated in an anti-death penalty demonstration from handling any execution-related cases.
A Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission panel formally filed charges against six of the court's seven members over their handling of the case involving 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. Days after the demonstration, the court removed Griffen from the drug lawsuit and barred him from hearing any death penalty cases.
A complaint against a seventh justice is still pending. The complaint against the justices was filed by Griffen, who was charged earlier this year by the disciplinary panel over the demonstration. The panel said the court never gave Griffen notice or an opportunity to be heard over his removal from death penalty cases.
"Indeed, none of the parties to the litigation had even raised or argued the issue of Judge Griffen's blanket disqualification with the Supreme Court," the panel said. The court also didn't give Griffen enough time to respond to the state's request to have him removed from the lethal injection drug case, according to the panel.
The justices did not immediately respond to requests for comment Thursday afternoon. The panel dismissed a part of Griffen's complaint that claimed the justices improperly communicated with the attorney general's office.
The justices have 30 days to respond to the charges and will have a hearing before the full, nine-member commission. The commission can recommend the justices be suspended or removed if they're found to have violated judicial rules of conduct. The final decision would be up to seven special justices who would have to be appointed by the governor to hear the case. The panel could also issue a public admonishment, reprimand the justices or censure them. The commission is scheduled to take up the case against Griffen over the demonstration next month.
The charges were filed against Chief Justice Dan Kemp and Justices Courtney Goodson, Robin Wynne, Jo Hart, Rhonda Wood and Karen Baker. A complaint is pending against Justice Shawn Womack.
Griffen had sued the justices over his disqualification, claiming it violated his constitutional rights, but a federal appeals court dismissed the case. Griffen's attorney, Mike Laux, has said he plans to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Laux said Thursday that the charges validate the claims in the judge's lawsuit, but he said they also raised as many questions as answers.
"In any event, Judge Griffen is buoyed by the Commission's decision but we continue to analyze the ruling which creates many implications going forward," Laux said.
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