Arkansas Supreme Court seeks to dismiss judge's lawsuit

Arkansas Supreme Court justices have asked a federal court to dismiss a lawsuit by a judge who was barred from considering execution-related cases after blocking the use of a lethal injection drug and participating in an anti-death penalty demonstration.

Responding to the lawsuit by Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen challenging his disqualification, justices argued that the judge doesn't have a protected right to hear death penalty cases and that their order doesn't affect his First Amendment rights. They disqualified Griffen days after he was photographed strapped to a cot outside the governor's mansion.

"This case is not about the death penalty, freedom of speech, the free exercise of religion, due process or equal protection," attorneys for Chief Justice Dan Kemp and Justices Robin Wynne and Shawn Womack said in a motion filed Tuesday. "It is about the authority of the Supreme Court of Arkansas to assure that litigants in the state's courts receive the due process considerations to which they are entitled under the Constitution of the United States."

Though photographs of Griffen strapped to the cot 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 filed a lawsuit in October arguing the disqualification violated his constitutional rights to free speech and exercise of religion, and said the move broke a 2015 state religious objections law. 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's attorney said he expected U.S. District Judge James Moody Jr. to first rule on Griffen's motion that the federal judge disqualify himself from the case. Moody is a former Pulaski County circuit judge who served alongside Griffen, as well as other judges Griffen expects to call as witnesses in his case. Attorney Mike Laux said he'd "vigorously" respond to the state justices' bids to dismiss the case after Moody addresses the disqualification request.

"While we expected these motions, they are facially refuted by a reading of our fact-intensive complaint and controlling law," Laux said in an email.

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