Judge Files Free-Speech Suit Over Ban From Execution Cases

LITTLE ROCK, Ark., (CN) – An Arkansas judge whose participation in an anti-death penalty rally led to his lifetime ban from hearing capital-punishment cases sued the state’s high court Thursday, claiming its seven justices violated his rights to free speech.

FILE – In this April 14, 2017, file photo, provided by Sherry Simon, Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen, lies on a cot at an anti-death penalty demonstration outside the Governor’s Mansion in Little Rock, Ark. Griffen, who was barred from considering any execution-related cases after blocking the use of a lethal injection drug and participating in an anti-death penalty demonstration, is suing the state’s highest court, saying justices violated his constitutional rights. (Sherry Simon via AP, File)

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

“Judge Griffen has been materially harmed by the loss of prestige, job satisfaction, and job duties suffered as a result of the Arkansas Supreme Court’s order, by virtue of being barred and disqualified, forever, from hearing the most serious cases a judge can hear in Arkansas,” the 25-page complaint states.

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 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 to execute four men in eight days before its batch of the lethal-injection drug expired.

Griffen, 65, argues in the lawsuit that his disqualification was in retaliation for exercising his religious freedom through attendance at the Good Friday prayer vigil, and “out of discriminatory racial animus toward him as a person of African-American ancestry and racial identity.”

“Judge Griffen has been open and forthright in his personal and religious life concerning his religious and moral views about the death penalty, while at the same time, demonstrating his commitment to follow the law when fulfilling his judicial duties,” the complaint states.

He seeks damages from the Arkansas Supreme Court and its members for claims of civil rights violations, including First Amendment retaliation on the basis of religious exercise.

Griffen also wants damages under the Arkansas Religious Freedom Restoration Act, arguing he was punished for expressing his “sincerely held religious beliefs about the death penalty.”

The judge is represented by Little Rock attorney Austin Porter Jr.

Griffen is being investigated for potential judicial misconduct and could face punishment by the Arkansas Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission for his actions. He has filed his own complaints of ethics violations against the state’s high court.

He has not shied away from criticizing the Arkansas Supreme Court in his written opinions. Griffen called the court’s March ruling that allowed the state’s supplier of its lethal-injection drug to remain confidential “more than troubling, and more than shameful.”

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

The state’s next execution is scheduled for Nov. 9.

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