Leader Blues

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

EDITORIALS>>Judge Griffen is exonerated

After wasting two years, thousands of dollars and much good will, the state Judicial Disability and Discipline Commission exonerated Judge Wendell Griffen of the Arkansas Court of Appeals of charges that he disgraced the judiciary. The judge, who is also a Baptist minister, had commented on matters of public concern on four or five occasions in recent years in church and other settings and a few of his remarks had got into the media. The full commission finally acknowledged, as one of its panels had concluded during the summer, that the U. S. Constitution protected his right to do that.

The commission, or at least its former director, had been pursuing Griffen for five years — ever since he was quoted as criticizing the University of Arkansas after its firing of Nolan Richardson, the black basketball coach, at a meeting of African-American legislators at Fayetteville. The commission had slapped Griffen’s wrist for that comment but the Arkansas Supreme Court reversed that mild but official rebuke because the government could not punish him for exercising his right of free speech. Then other comments, including one at a Baptist ministerial conference in South Carolina, made their way to critics and more charges were filed with the commission.

It is reassuring that the commission did not repeat its first mistake and declared that Griffen indeed could express himself on questions that were not before the court. None of the matters on which Griffen had been quoted — the federal response to Hurricane Katrina, President Bush’s judicial appointments, the political absorption with homosexuals — were before the Arkansas Court of Appeals or were ever likely to arrive there.

What remains is for the Arkansas Supreme Court to clean up the code of judicial ethics, which still contains language that seems to restrict the right of judges and candidates for judge to talk in public about matters of public concern. The U. S. Supreme Court ruled years ago that such restrictions violated the First Amendment.

Like other people, even aliens, who dwell on American soil, judges can say what is on their mind as long as it does not complicate their decisions on cases before them. The Arkansas Bar Association recognized that the code is unconstitutional and has a committee studying it.

That is an hour of thoughtful work, at most. Judge Griffen has asked the federal district court to strike the language, but since he no longer is a defendant he may not have standing to force the issue. No one now is apt to be charged with violating the neutered code, but the Supreme Court needs to get it off the books. Useless, unenforceable or unconstitutional law simply should not be on the books.