8th Circ. Upholds Arkansas’ Right to Bar Judge from Death-Penalty Cases

LITTLE ROCK (CN) – A state judge in Arkansas cannot pursue a civil rights lawsuit against the state’s highest court after it permanently barred him from hearing death-penalty cases, the Eighth Circuit ruled this week.

Pulaski County Circuit Court Judge Wendell Griffen, who is African-American, sued the Arkansas Supreme Court and all seven of its members in October 2017, claiming that his disqualification from death-penalty cases was race-based and in violation of a state religious-freedom law.

The lawsuit was allowed to proceed against each of the justices, but Monday’s ruling dismissed Griffen’s lawsuit altogether for failure “to state plausible claims for relief.”

The disqualification order “does not prohibit Judge Griffen’s free exercise of religious,” wrote U.S. Circuit Judge Duane Benton for the three-judge panel. “Rather, the order reflects neutral principles applicable to all judges who exhibit potential for bias.”

Griffen stepped into the death-penalty debate in April when he granted a pharmaceutical company’s request for a temporary restraining order preventing Arkansas from using vecuronium bromide in its executions.

Just hours later, Griffen joined protesters in front of the governor’s mansion in Little Rock, strapped to a makeshift gurney and sporting an anti-death penalty button.

While photos show the judge lying on a cot and appearing to be loosely tied down by rope, Griffen says the display was part of a Good Friday prayer vigil and “in solidarity with Jesus.”

Griffen, who is also a Baptist pastor, was surrounded by demonstrators who carried signs opposing the state’s plan to execute an unprecedented eight inmates before its supply of midazolam expired at the end of April.

The Arkansas Supreme Court removed Griffen from the case and his order was lifted two days later. The state proceeded execute four men in eight days before its batch of the lethal-injection drug expired.

An attorney for Griffen said he plans to file a petition asking the full Eight Circuit to review the case.

Griffen is being investigation for potential judicial misconduct and could face punishment by the Arkansas Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission for his actions.

Griffen was elected to the bench in 2010 and re-elected in 2016.

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