LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — A disciplinary panel dismissed ethics charges Friday against the Arkansas Supreme Court's justices over their decision to prohibit a judge who participated in an anti-death penalty demonstration from hearing any execution-related cases.
The Arkansas Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission voted unanimously to dismiss the charges that the court's seven justices violated ethics rules when they disqualified Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen. The court last year prohibited Griffen from hearing death penalty cases after he was photographed laying on a cot during a demonstration outside the governor's mansion wearing an anti-death penalty button and surrounded by people holding signs opposing executions.
Earlier the day of the demonstration, Griffen blocked the state from using a lethal injection drug over the claims the drug supplier had been misled by the state.
A three-member panel earlier this year said the justices never gave Griffen notice or an opportunity to be heard over his removal. In dismissing the complaint Friday, the commission said it doesn't have jurisdiction to take action against judges for how they apply the law in the absence of "fraud, corrupt motive or bad faith." The justices had argued the commission didn't have jurisdiction over the complaint since it dealt with a legal issue and not an ethical matter.
The ethics complaint against the justices was filed by Griffen, who was charged earlier this year by a three-member panel from the commission over the demonstration. An attorney for Griffen said he was surprised by the commission's action and had not been notified beforehand.
"This clandestine Friday afternoon dismissal of the sustained ethics charges against the Arkansas Supreme Court was totally unknown to us until now because we were not given any notice of a hearing or session regarding same," attorney Mike Laux said in an email. "Unfortunately, this appears to be a recurring theme when it pertains to Judge Griffen's constitutional rights and protected interests."
Brent Standridge, the special counsel who had been appointed to prosecute the case against the justices, did not immediately return a call Friday afternoon.
Five justices had filed a lawsuit in the state Supreme Court to halt the ethics charges. Gov. Asa Hutchinson last month named seven special justices to preside over that case.
Griffen had sued the justices over his disqualification, claiming it violated his constitutional rights, but a federal appeals court dismissed the case. Griffen's ethics case is scheduled to go before the full commission in March.
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