Griffen files federal civil rights lawsuit over Good Friday vigil punishment | Arkansas Blog

Griffen files federal civil rights lawsuit over Good Friday vigil punishment

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Griffen: From the Good Friday vigil at the Governor's mansion. Griffen denies it was a death penalty protest. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • Griffen: From the Good Friday vigil at the Governor's mansion. Griffen denies it was a death penalty protest.

Calling what happened to him the product of "a lynch mob mentality" and the result of a weekend of clandestine conversations between members of the Arkansas State Supreme Court, firebrand Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen held a press conference today to announce the filing of a federal civil rights lawsuit over being stripped of his ability to hear cases related to the death penalty, following a Good Friday vigil in which Griffen lay on a cot in front of the Governor's mansion.

The lawsuit names both the Supreme Court of Arkansas and every current Arkansas Supreme Court Justice as defendants. You can read the lawsuit at the bottom of this post. 

On Good Friday this year, the same day he ruled against the state in a claim by the drug maker McKesson that temporarily halted the state's efforts to carry out a slew of executions, Griffen participated in the event at the Governor's mansion, laying prone on a cot while members of his New Millennium Church and death penalty protesters with signs stood nearby. Though initial reports said Griffen was emulating a condemned inmate, Griffen later said — and reiterated forcefully today — that his display at the Governor's mansion was a previously scheduled prayer vigil for his church, and not about protesting the death penalty.

The day after Easter, Griffen learned that the Arkansas Supreme Court would bar him from hearing any case related to the death penalty. In May, Arkansas House Speaker Jeremy Gillam (R-Judsonia) filed a resolution to establish a path for impeachment proceedings against Griffen, amending House rules to include a rule regarding the procedure for consideration of articles of impeachment.

At today's press conference, held at Lakeshore Baptist Church near the UA-Little Rock campus, Griffen's attorney Mike Laux — who was joined by Griffen and Little Rock civil rights attorney Austin Porter, Jr. — began by recounting the story of Jesus' betrayal and crucifixion before saying that Griffen "is the victim of a religiously bigoted witch hunt" by powerful people who dislike his views and wish to attack him for his "thoughts, speech and religious beliefs." Laux called the actions taken against Griffen a "rank violation of his First Amendment rights," with the Supreme Court using "ex parte, clandestine conversations" over the Easter weekend to make their decision to stop Griffen from hearing death penalty-related cases.   

In making his case that the event at the Governor's mansion had nothing to do with the scheduled executions or the McKesson case he'd decided that day, Griffen cited an email he sent to members of his New Millennium Church on April 7, 2017, which included a schedule of planned events for members for Holy Week. On that list, Griffen said, was a Good Friday prayer vigil to be held at the Governor's mansion. That vigil, Griffen said, was in solidarity with Jesus. He's previously said the location for the vigil was a nod to the role Pontius Pilate played in Jesus' death, a similar role to the governor. April 7, Griffen noted, was before McKesson had even filed their lawsuit. "I dare anyone to prove otherwise," Griffen said. Griffen later said that he sees the case as "stating a judge has the right to live out his or her faith without interference from the government." Griffen later said that officials had acted "with the mentality of a lynch mob," thinking "We're going to have a lynching on Good Friday."

Laux said that even if Griffen had gone there to protest the death penalty, it would have been "totally protected free speech" that shouldn't have resulted in a sanction, much less requiring the Supreme Court to rush to bar Griffen from cases. "There was no rush," Laux said. "There was no need to embark on this road without consulting this man."

Reeling off a laundry list of crimes committed in the past by white judges without the legislature calling for their impeachment Laux said that black judges in Arkansas are "handled very differently" when their actions are called into question. Laux said it was "obscene" for the "powers that be" to tell Griffen how and where he could express his religion.

The lawsuit makes claims based on five areas: The First Amendment protection of Free Speech, Freedom of religious expression, a claim under the Arkansas Religious Freedom Restoration Act — a law critics say was written to allow public discrimination against LGBT people, but which Griffen's counsel said applies in Griffen's case — denial of due process claim under the 14th Amendment, and an equal protection claim.

Laux said that if the Arkansas Religious Freedom Restoration Act doesn't apply to Griffen's case, it is a "hollow" law.
Griffen (left) and attorney Mike Laux at today's press conference. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • Griffen (left) and attorney Mike Laux at today's press conference.

Austin Porter, Jr. evoked the current furor over sports figures taking a knee during the National Anthem, nothing that Colin Kaepernick and others who have since followed his example have been "demonized and marginalized." Noting that Griffen is a judge who sits on the bench due to the Hunt Decree, a 1991 federal consent decree that created judicial sub-districts with a majority of African-American voters, to make it easier to elect African-American judges from those areas. Porter said the move to strip Griffen of death penalty cases was a violation of the Hunt Decree. "An African-American judge who simply laid down on a cot has been demonized and vilified," Porter said.

Laux said that he has proof of "conspiratorial activities" by the Arkansas Supreme Court and others, and called on every member of the Supreme Court to preserve any text messages, emails, and other documents that would be germane to discovery in the case. Laux later said that he would "absolutely" be open to deposing members of the Arkansas Llgislature who may have played a role in the actions against Griffen or the decision to move forward with his impeachment.

Asked by a reporter whether he believes he would have gotten in trouble for the vigil had he been white, Griffen said: "I think history proves the point. How many white judges have been threatened with impeachment?"

See related PDF griffen_suit.pdf

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