Arkansas judge asks court to allow him to hear death penalty-related cases again

An Arkansas judge is petitioning the state Supreme Court to restore his power to preside over capital punishment-related cases after he was disqualified from those duties following his participation in an anti-death penalty protest two years ago.

In his Monday filing, Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen, who is black, said no white member of the state judiciary has been banned from hearing and deciding an entire category of cases. The document cites the case of a white judge who pleaded guilty to a DWI in 2017 was barred from presiding over similar cases for eight months.

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The state Supreme Court removed Griffen from hearing criminal and civil cases related to capital punishment after he was photographed at the April 2017 demonstration outside the Arkansas governor's mansion. Griffen had blocked the state from using an execution drug the same day as the protest.

Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen, lying on cot, takes part in an anti-death penalty demonstration outside the Governor's Mansion in Little Rock, Ark., in April 2017. (Cheryl Simon via AP)

Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen, lying on cot, takes part in an anti-death penalty demonstration outside the Governor's Mansion in Little Rock, Ark., in April 2017. (Cheryl Simon via AP) (The Associated Press)

The photo showed Griffen lying on a cot wearing a button opposing executions and surrounded by people holding signs. He said he was portraying Jesus and participating in a prayer vigil when he was laying on the cot.

“Petitioner has engaged in extrajudicial conduct, in his personal capacity and as a pastor in the religion of Jesus, that involves expression of his personal moral and religious opposition to capital punishment based on his personal and religious conviction that the death penalty is morally — not legally — unjustifiable,” the filing said. “At the same time, petitioner has never made any statement, pledge or promise that committed him to rule for or against any party in any case, including any civil or criminal case involving the death penalty or method of execution.”

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Griffen's petition notes that the state's Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission panel dropped an ethics case against him on the grounds that too much time had passed between the time a complaint against Griffen was filed and when the commission took up the case. His attorneys argue the disqualification violates the state's Hunt Decree, which requires that judges serving in majority black voter judicial subdistricts exercise the same powers as other judges, and deprives citizens of "their choice of an elected judge from hearing all the matters heard by Circuit Judges under the Arkansas Constitution."

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Griffen has challenged his removal before. A lawsuit against the state Supreme Court over his disqualification was dismissed last year. A federal appeals court in August decided not to hear the lawsuit and the U.S. Supreme Court left the decision in place earlier this year.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.