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Arkansas judge barred from execution cases after death penalty protest

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The Arkansas judge who blocked the state from carrying out multiple executions was barred late Monday from taking up any other capital punishment-related cases after he participated in an anti-death penalty demonstration by laying on a cot as though he were a death row inmate on a gurney about to be put to death.

Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen was referred to a disciplinary panel after his demonstration outside the governor’s mansion.

Griffen’s protests sparked outrage among capital punishment supporters as well as lawmakers who described his actions as judicial misconduct and potential grounds for removal from the bench.

"To protect the integrity of the judicial system this court has a duty to ensure that all are given a fair and impartial tribunal," the court said in its two-page order.

Justices also referred Griffen to the state Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission to consider whether he violated the code of conduct for judges.

In the past, Griffen has said he’s opposed to the death penalty but that his personal beliefs shouldn’t discredit or disqualify him from taking up cases involving capital punishment.

On Friday, Griffen granted a restraining order preventing Arkansas from using its supply of vecuronium bromide, one of three drugs it uses in executions, because the pharmaceutical company said the state misleadingly obtained the drug.

The Arkansas Supreme Court on Monday night granted the state's request to vacate Griffen's ruling, potentially clearing the way for the state to carry out its first execution in nearly 12 years.

The case involving the drug was reassigned to another judge shortly after the Supreme Court issued its order Monday disqualifying Griffen from cases about the death penalty or Arkansas’ execution protocol.

Lawmakers have suggested Griffen's actions may be grounds for the Arkansas House to begin impeachment proceedings, saying the demonstration and a blog post Griffen wrote on the death penalty last week may amount to "gross misconduct" under the state constitution.

The Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission confirmed Monday an investigation of Griffen is pending following the state Supreme Court referral.

Griffen, who served 12 years on the state appeals court, previously battled with the judicial discipline panel over remarks he made criticizing President George W. Bush and the war in Iraq. The panel ultimately dropped its case against him.

Griffen testified before the state Legislature in 2015 against a religious objections measure that was criticized as anti-gay, and he regularly blogs about current events in posts that weave in Biblical passages. They include a post days before his ruling that criticized the execution push in Arkansas.

"While the world meditates about divine love, forgiveness, justice, and hope, Arkansas officials plan to commit a series of homicides," he wrote.

Griffen, 64, is a Baptist minister who was first elected as Pulaski County judge in 2010. He ran twice unsuccessfully for state Supreme Court — including a bid for chief justice in 2004. In his other state Supreme Court race in 2006, Griffen challenged his rival to a debate over the free-speech rights of judges.

Griffen said he wouldn't consider a person's participation in an anti-execution event enough, on its own, to warrant disqualifying a juror from a death penalty case. The question, he said, is whether the juror could set his or her personal views aside and follow the law.

"We do not require people to come into court with blank slates, either in their minds or their heart," he said Saturday.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.