Leader Blues

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

EDITORIALS>>Why persecute Griffen?

The strange case of Judge Wendell L. Griffen, pro se, v. Arkansas Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission becomes weirder and weirder, and more and more troubling for the public conscience.

Judge Griffen and the commission, which is supposed by law to curb rogue judges, were back before the Arkansas Supreme Court Thursday in the latest of the caseís endless configurations. This time, the justices were trying to figure out if the commission could hold still another hearing in secret on whether to charge Judge Griffen with official misconduct and why in the world the commission wanted to hold it in secret since Judge Griffen most adamantly did not.

Griffen, in fact, was asking the Supreme Court to order the commission to try him in public from start to finish and hold nothing back from the public. The commission, or at least its director, is demanding secrecy.

It makes you wonder which is the rogue and which the protector of judicial integrity. But that has been true from the first.
Griffen, who is black, is a judge on the state Court of Appeals, the stateís second highest court. He had the audacity twice to run for the Supreme Court, in 2004 and 2006. Had he been elected, he would have been the first elected black justice of the high court. Each time, complaints were filed against him at the judicial watchdog agency. The complaints were made public and badly damaged his campaign. No one wants a dishonest judge on the highest court.

But here is what the commission charged him with. He made a remark at Fayetteville to a group of black state legislators that there was racism at the University of Arkansas. He had specific reference to Frank Broylesí firing of Nolan Richardson, who happened to be the most successful major-sport coach in Arkansas history.

The commissionís director said the remark sullied the dignity of the judiciary and cast doubt on its impartiality. The commission handed him an official rebuke, which he did not accept.

Since then, Griffenís remarks outside the court on matters having nothing to do with the courts or cases have gotten into print here and there. A Baptist minister, he speaks at Baptist conventions and other forums. His remarks criticizing the national governmentís inept response to Hurricane Katrina and the war in Iraq got into a newspaper here and there and it found its way to the commission. He wrote an op-ed article for a newspaper criticizing the U. S. Justice Departmentís escalating abuse of personal privacy and other civil liberties.

A judge, every judge, must keep completely silent outside the courtroom, even on matters that will never come before his court, the Judicial Disability Commission maintained. When he doesnít, it argued, he erodes peopleís respect for the courts. That, indeed, used to be a state-imposed doctrine of the system of electing judges, which is the system in about half the states. The premise was that people got better justice, or at least would think they did, the less they knew about the views of judges and those who were running for judgeships. If voters had a hint of what judicial candidates thought about issues of the day they would have no confidence in the courts.

It was always bunk, and the U.S. Supreme Court in 2002 said so finally and emphatically in a case brought by the Republican Party in Minnesota, where a Republican candidate was disciplined for having uttered political views.

The U. S. Court noted that the First Amendment allowed everyone in America to speak their mind and to assemble with whomever they wished. That right must be extended even to judges, the court said.

Thus the Arkansas Supreme Court overturned Griffenís first punishment, but when he ran for the Supreme Court again last year, someone lodged complaints against him again. It is not clear whether the commissionís director did it on his own or someone elsewhere did.

The commissionís attorney told the Supreme Court Thurs-day that its probable-cause hearing on Griffen absolutely had to be closed to the public. The purpose is to protect an accused judge from having damaging charges against him that later prove unfounded made public. But Griffen waived the privilege of confidentiality at the outset and made the accusations public himself. Twice he has been to the Supreme Court to make the commission divulge to everyone what it has on him.
We should all be troubled that the judiciary may be damaged by this sad episode, but it is hard to escape that the wrong person is in the dock.