LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – An Arkansas judge who was barred from considering any execution-related cases after blocking the use of a lethal injection drug and participating in an anti-death penalty demonstration is suing the state's highest court, saying justices violated his constitutional rights.
Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen on Thursday filed a lawsuit in federal court against the seven members of the state Supreme Court who disqualified him days after he was photographed laying on a cot outside the governor's mansion.
"Judge Griffen has been materially harmed by the loss of prestige, job satisfaction, and job duties suffered as a result of the Arkansas Supreme Court's Order, by virtue of being barred and disqualified, forever, from hearing the most serious cases a judge can hear in Arkansas," attorneys for the judge said in the lawsuit.
Though photographs of Griffen strapped to a cot outside the governor's mansion April 14 evoked images of a condemned inmate awaiting lethal injection, the judge has said he was portraying Jesus and participating in a Good Friday vigil with his church. The judge, who is also a Baptist pastor, wore an anti-death penalty button and was surrounded by people holding signs opposing executions.
Griffen's lawsuit argues that the disqualification violated his constitutional rights to free speech and exercise of religion, and said the move broke a 2015 state religious objections law.
"A judge has the right under the First Amendment to live out his or her faith without the government trying to tell them how to do it," Griffen said at a news conference at a Baptist church in Little Rock, with the cot he used on display.
Chief Justice Dan Kemp did not immediately reply to a message left at his office seeking comment Thursday afternoon.
The state Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission is investigating a complaint against Griffen over the demonstration, along with a complaint the judge filed against the court over the disqualification. Griffen has asked the commission to dismiss the complaint against him, a request he renewed last week.
Earlier, on the same day as the demonstration, Griffen had issued an order blocking Arkansas from using vecuronium bromide in lethal injections. McKesson Corp. had sought the temporary order, saying it was misled by Arkansas that the vecuronium bromide sold to the state would be used for inmate care. The Supreme Court later lifted that order and barred Griffen from hearing any death penalty cases.
Another judge later assigned the case also blocked the drug's use. The state Supreme Court also lifted that order, allowing Arkansas to execute four inmates over an eight-day period in April.
The lawsuit over the company's claims is still pending before the state Supreme Court.
Arkansas is set to execute another inmate on Nov. 9.
Griffen's lawsuit claims the court deprived him of his due process rights by disqualifying him from death penalty cases without giving him a chance to respond. The lawsuit also accuses the all-white court of conspiring against Griffen, who is black, because of racial animosity and cites instances of white judges who have not faced similar treatment after being accused of criminal conduct.
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