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All Seven Arkansas Supreme Court Justices Face Ethics Charges

In September 2018, the Arkansas Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission formally charged state Supreme Court Justices Dan Kemp, Robin Wynne, Courtney Goodson, Josephine “Jo” Hart, Karen Baker and Rhonda Wood with violating the state’s judicial canons. A similar ethics charge against the seventh justice, Shawn Womack, was filed the following month.

The charges were in response to a complaint by Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen. Griffen had issued an order on April 14, 2017, Good Friday, that temporarily halted state executions; that same day he participated in a protest against capital punishment and laid on a mock gurney in front of the governor’s mansion. 

In the late afternoon of April 15, 2017, a Saturday, the clerk for the Supreme Court emailed Griffen’s office and informed him that Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge had filed a request to vacate his order and asked for his removal from all capital cases because he “cannot be considered remotely impartial on issues related to the death penalty.” Griffen was given less than two days over the weekend to respond. By Monday morning he was stripped of his authority to hear death penalty cases; later that day, the Supreme Court reversed his order. 

Another judge made the same findings as Griffen but that order also was vacated, which put the state on course to execute four prisoners over an eight-day period. [See: PLN, Feb. 2018, p.24]. Griffen filed an ethics complaint against the Supreme Court justices, arguing he did not receive adequate notice or an opportunity to defend himself.

“It cannot be reasonably assumed that Judge Griffen would receive the email at his chambers address on a weekend. Judge Griffen could not have reasonably been expected to have effectuated a meaningful response to the state’s petition to remove him from [the case],” wrote Commission special counsel J. Brent Standridge, in explaining the ethics charges against the justices. “Further, Judge Griffen was never given notice of, and the opportunity to be heard on, the Supreme Court’s ultimate action – the removal of Judge Griffen from all death penalty and execution protocol cases pending and in the future.” 

Meanwhile, Griffen also faces ethics charges, related to his decision to publicly protest against the death penalty. 

“If that doesn’t define reasonably questioned impartiality, I don’t know what could,” said Special Commission Counsel Rachel Michel. Griffen’s attorney said the judge has a right set forth by the U.S. Supreme Court to speak out on social and legal issues. 

Griffen filed a federal lawsuit against the state Supreme Court justices, which was dismissed; he appealed to the Eighth Circuit, which rejected his First Amendment argument and other claims, and affirmed the dismissal on July 2, 2018. See: In re Kemp, 894 F.3d 900 (8th Cir. 2018), rehearing and rehearing en banc denied, petition for certiorari filed.

The ethics charges against the justices mark the first time in the Commission’s 30-year history that it has brought formal complaints against any member of the state’s Supreme Court, said David Sachar, the Commission’s executive director. The ethics charges against both the justices and Judge Griffen remain pending. 



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Related legal case

In re Kemp