Leader Blues

Monday, August 13, 2007

EDITORIALS>>Persecution of a judge

The five-year-old pursuit of Judge Wendell L. Griffen by the executive director of the state Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission came to an end this week with a whimper. Never mind, a panel of the commission said, the judge was always within his rights.

While the panel’s unanimous report is only a recommendation to the full commission, the commission nearly always respects decisions by its panels, especially unanimous ones. It certainly should in this troubling case.

Since March 2002, when Griffen, a judge on the state Court of Appeals, criticized the University of Arkansas at a meeting of black state legislators, the director of the commission, James A. Badami, has been trying to get him reprimanded or removed from the bench for speaking out of turn. The commission that fall issued a formal reprimand saying that Griffen’s public utterance violated the state’s canon of judicial ethics, which forbade judges from revealing their thoughts about public issues. The Arkansas Supreme Court eventually threw out the reprimand because it violated his right to free speech under the federal and state constitutions.

But Griffen, a black Baptist minister as well as a judge, got quoted in the public prints six or seven times more over the next several years in newspapers in Arkansas or elsewhere on Hurricane Katrina, the Iraqi war, the punishment of gays, racism and President Bush’s appointment of a chief justice. One was at a meeting of the National Baptist Convention USA in Columbus, Ga., where he was quoted in a local paper as criticizing the government’s handling of Hurricane Katrina.

Fresh charges were lodged against Griffen at the Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission even though the U. S. Supreme Court ruled years ago that the Constitution protected the speech rights of judges as well as the rest of us.

But James Badami, Grif-fen’s own police inspector Javert, insisted that the state’s anti-speech rules for judges were still valid because someone who was aware of Judge Griffen’s ideas about immigrants or homosexuals or the war or Hurricane Katrina but who had opposite ideas might feel he would not get a fair shake when his personal-injury or contract suit reached Judge Griffen. It would be better, Badami said, if his ideas were a secret.

For nearly two years Judge Griffen has been trying to get the charges dismissed or get a final decision from the commission so that he could appeal it again and get it thrown out. He faces re-election next spring and the ignominy of a reprimand for misconduct would almost certainly defeat him. Last month, he petitioned the federal district court at Little Rock to stop the inquisition and affirm his right to say what is on his mind as long as it does not affect cases that will come before him.
A three-lawyer panel of the commission ended the long ordeal Wednesday, concluding that all of the remarks that Griffen had been quoted as making were protected by the Bill of Rights. They described that conclusion as “inescapable.”

-Ernie Dumas