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Who will judge the judges?

What happens when the Arkansas Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission is itself disciplined and finds itself disabled? The state is about to find out thanks to the continued antics on and off the bench by that regular inspiration for indignation, The Hon. Rev. Wendell Griffen, who continues to make more headlines than sense.

This time it took a three-page letter from the respected Howard Brill, a former chief justice of the state's Supreme Court, to get both the commission's executive director, David Sachar, and his deputy, Emily White, to step aside from a case and imbroglio that once again pits the best interests of the State of Arkansas against Wendell Griffen's seemingly endless capacity to make trouble for all concerned or who should be concerned, namely We the People.

"It is my belief," wrote Professor Brill in a letter to the commission's top two officials, "that both of you are caught in an unacceptable dilemma with these competing allegations [for and against Judge Griffen]. Unique circumstances are present in this situation. Accordingly, I believe that the commission, and indeed the state, would be best served if both [of you] withdrew from any major role in the investigation or prosecution of any charges arising from either of these referrals" to the commission on ethical grounds--one each against the whole Supreme Court from Judge Griffen, and the other against Judge Griffen from the whole Supreme Court.

At this confused and confusing point, the state's judicial ethics commission had gotten a grand total of 253 complaints as of the end of 2015, all of which came to nothing except one. That one did result in the sanction of a single judge, but nothing more. Just as Professor Brill's letter to the commission noted, this isn't the first time the commission has had to deal with Brother Griffen--for in 2005, when Wendell Griffen was a member of the state's Court of Appeals, the commission concluded not to discipline him because his tendency to discuss "disputed political or legal issues" was protected by the First Amendment, but now the judge is again in the middle of a political and legal firestorm. This one features cross-complaints from himself and the state's Supreme Court, and Judge/Rev. Griffen may have found a way to disqualify the whole ethics-and-disability commission from judging him. By claiming it has a conflict of interest.

Why? Because, as Professor Bill notes, the commission may be formally independent of the state's Supreme Court but is obliged to work with it closely when it comes to cases involving of judicial conduct. This investigation, as the professor notes in his letter to the commission, "would make it difficult for you to conduct a truly independent investigation."

Then there are the unique circumstances of this heckuva mess. For the commission may have investigated complaints against one judge or another before now, but not against all seven members of the state's highest court. This investigation, the professor warns, with all its "sharply conflicting allegations, and the scope of the potential charges, would likely make an investigation lengthy and difficult. A proper investigation would likely require interviews or even depositions of members of the [Supreme Court] and others. You would be hampered in conducting such interviews." Therefore the members of the commission should step aside in favor of independent investigators.

So congratulations, Judge Griffen, on your latest victory over the public interest. When it comes to delaying and denying justice, few are able to throw a monkey wrench into this state's legal machinery with your dexterity--and success.

Gentle Reader may already have noticed that wherever Brother Griffen wanders in the law, trouble is sure to follow, along with confusion. Megalomaniacal pretensions can have all kinds of repercussions when it comes to politics in general and the law in particular.

The constitution of this state provides a solution when a public official is a continual source of embarrassment and consternation. It's called impeachment and the wheels for it should already have been greased on those previous occasions when it became necessary or, in Judge Griffen's case, imperative. If 'twere done, and it should be, let it be done quickly. Before the judge gets himself and the State of Arkansas into even more trouble.

Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer and columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Editorial on 06/18/2017

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