Leader Blues

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

WED 5-17-6 EDITORIAL >> Our choices for high court

Under the governing theory for electing judges in Arkansas, the less voters know about the candidates the better the judicial system will serve them. The Arkansas canons of ethics for judges still seem to bar judges and even candidates for judgeships from making any utterance that suggests that they have thoughts about any of the concerns of society. The idea is that if people know what a judge or a judicial candidate stands for, they will lose confidence in the impartiality and independence of the courts.

So opponents of Judge Wendell Griffen of the Arkansas Court of Appeals, who is running for a seat on the Supreme Court, have filed complaints once again with the state Judicial Discipline and Disability Com-mission asking that he be removed from office or punished somehow for getting quoted four or five times in newspapers around the country the past several years on issues of some concern: racial discrimination in student recruitment at the University of Arkansas, the shabby treatment of the victims of Hurricane Katrina and President Bush’s appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court. The ethics complaints are intended to damage Judge Griffen’s chances of getting elected, and they did. A dramatic headline the other day on the front page of the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, which regularly bashes Griffen, reported “Griffen at risk of impeachment,” which should sew up the election for his opponent.

Griffen is not at risk of impeachment. No one has even hinted at bringing an impeachment petition before the House of Representatives.

The Arkansas rules that Griffen is supposed to have violated are unconstitutional, if they mean what the director of the judicial commission says. The U. S. Supreme Court said such rules are unlawful, and so has the 8th U. S. Circuit Court of Appeals, whose precedents Arkansas is bound to follow. The court said the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech applies not only to communists, Klansmen and assorted crackpots but everybody — even judges. The Arkansas Constitution says that “all persons” are entitled to “the free communication of thoughts and opinions,” making no exception for judges.
All this is leading up to our endorsement of Judge Griffen for Position 5 on the Supreme Court. Griffen will not comment on any issue that seems likely to come before the Court of Appeals or the Supreme Court, and that is the only limitation on speech that we ought to expect of him, other than we should like him to be accurate and thoughtful.

Griffen maintains that voters are entitled to know a little about how even a judicial candidate thinks before they vote. In his case, they may not like his ideas, in which case it is fair that they vote against him and ask others to join them. All of us search for some nugget of knowledge about the unfamiliar names that appear on the judicial ballot besides the fact that they are licensed to practice law and have some years of experience at it. Congress goes to great lengths to learn what it can about the views of the appellate court nominees, and that is appropriate for appellate courts.

We know little about Judge Griffen’s opponent, Judge Paul Danielson, except that he has been a trial judge in Logan County on the state’s western side for several years and lost a race for the Supreme Court two years ago. Griffen was elected to the Court of Appeals in 1996, only the third African-American elected to an appellate court in Arkansas. He is a brilliant jurist, acknowledged for his fairness and independence and the scholarship of his opinions. He is a Baptist minister and leader in the National Baptist Convention, where his outspoken opinions caused him trouble with the intolerants at the state newspaper and elsewhere.

The other Supreme Court race is for Position 2 between Justice Donald L. Corbin and Roger Harrod of Maumelle. Corbin is not the most brilliant jurist, but he is solid, principled and independent. Harrod is running because he disagrees with the Supreme Court decision last year to review the legislature’s response to the court’s order to bring the public schools up to constitutional standards. Harrod thus steps over the line that Griffen would not, declaring his position on an issue that likely will be before the Supreme Court very soon. If elected, of course, he will have to step aside when that issue arises, which renders his reason for running moot.

Justice Corbin is the clear choice for Position 2, Judge Griffen for Position 5.