LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas Supreme Court justices appealed a ruling that allows a judge to move forward with a lawsuit challenging his disqualification from execution cases following his participation in an anti-death penalty demonstration.
The court’s seven justices on Tuesday asked the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to lift a lower court’s ruling allowing most of Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen’s lawsuit over his disqualification to proceed. Justices disqualified Griffen last year after the judge was photographed lying down on a cot outside the governor’s mansion during an anti-death penalty rally. The judge, who is also a Baptist pastor, wore an anti-death penalty button and was surrounded by people holding signs opposing executions.
That same day, Griffen blocked Arkansas from using a lethal injection drug over claims the state misled a medical supply company.
A federal judge earlier this month dismissed Griffen’s lawsuit against the Supreme Court as a whole, but said his lawsuit against the individual justices could proceed. Griffen, who said he was portraying Jesus and participating in a prayer vigil, argued the justices and the court violated his constitutional rights.
In their appeal, attorneys for the justices said the lawsuit creates an “unprecedented situation” where members of the state’s highest court would have to be deposed and provide documents regarding the disqualification order. They included requests Griffen’s attorneys have made from the high court justices, such as any documents or communications regarding the judge’s conduct.
They also said Griffen’s argument, if he succeeds, would prevent states from reassigning cases if a judge has demonstrated bias.
“Judges could attend protests decrying the alleged conduct of a criminal defendant, and then preside over the defendant’s trial. They could participate in a political rally in support of a health care bill, and then decide the constitutionality of that bill,” the attorneys wrote. “And the litigants’ constitutional right to an impartial tribunal would dissolve.”
Griffen last week re-enacted his demonstration outside the governor’s mansion, again laying on the cot, during a vigil marking the one-year anniversary of Arkansas executing four men over an eight-day period.
An attorney for Griffen criticized the justices’ appeal as frivolous and said the judge is challenging “an improper, unconstitutional Arkansas Supreme Court personnel decision.”
“Under the defendants’ theory, they could ask the 8th Circuit for an order which would allow an all-white state Supreme Court to permanently bar a subordinate black judge who speaks out against racial injustice from ever again hearing any racial discrimination case of any kind,” attorney Mike Laux said in a statement. “It is totally ludicrous.”