Columns » Bob McCord

A vote for Griffen

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On May 18, we will elect a new chief justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court, and I hope that Judge Wendell Griffen is the winner. Born 51 years ago in Prescott, Judge Griffen is a tall, intelligent and conscientious man who has spent five years on the Arkansas Court of Appeals, where he has heard more than a thousand cases and has written 556 majority opinions. Before being appointed to that job, Griffen was a member of the Wright, Lindsey and Jennings firm, the first black man to be made a partner in one of Little Rock's best-known law firms. After getting a degree in political science at the University of Arkansas, he joined the Army for three years, returning to the UA to go to law school. He was the first winner of the school's Silas Hunt Memorial Justice Award. Griffen's wife is a clinical psychologist, and they have two sons. There's nothing wrong with Griffen's opponent, Supreme Court Justice Jim Hannah of Searcy, but it's disappointing that he refuses to debate Griffen. However, you can understand why. Griffen is not only a judge but also a good speaker with plenty of experience. On weekends he works as an ordained Baptist minister. Right now he's talking to audiences all over the state urging that all circuit judges - the workhorses of our legal system - should have law clerks. Only a couple of counties now provide them for their judges. Griffen says that law clerks would greatly reduce the time it now takes for a case to come to trial. Griffen's rulings from the bench indicate that he is generally closer to individuals than law books. He believed that a woman who fell on the stairs returning to work from a bathroom was entitled to workmen's compensation benefits. When a man was a day late in asking to appeal a circuit court decision to the Court of Appeals, Griffen voted to accept it anyway since the post office took three days to deliver the man's letter. Neither his Court of Appeals colleagues nor the Supreme Court justices sided with Griffen, so he wrote a proposal to allow a late appeal request provided it was the fault of the post office rather than the appellant, and the legislature made it into a law. A majority of the Court of Appeals affirmed a lower-court conviction of a man for possession and selling of methamphetamine because the drug was found near the man's house, he owned binoculars similar in size to a binocular case the drug was found inside, and his initials were on a flashlight found in the area. He also ran when the police came after him. But Griffen and three other Court of Appeals' judges dissented, and later, so did the Supreme Court. Griffen said that to affirm a conviction on that kind of circumstantial evidence could mean the state didn't have to prove all criminal charges beyond a reasonable doubt. Griffen also wrote the Court of Appeals' decision that said the Fort Smith's city administrator could no longer talk on the phone with city board members about how they will vote on issues at their upcoming meeting. Griffen called it "a subterfuge designed to circumvent the state's Freedom of Information law. " Some people criticize Griffen because he is not afraid to express himself. The Arkansas Democrat Gazette is opposed to Griffen because he said that University of Arkansas Athletic Director Frank Broyles fired basketball coach Nolan Richardson because he was black. Despite complaints from the UA, Griffen has agreed to be a witness for Richardson in his racial discrimination lawsuit. Personally I think Arkansas has had enough of Richardson, who, when he loses, likes to get on TV and call people names. He is just one of those coaches admired (as long as they win) by colleges like the UA that are subverted by big-time athletics, paying coaches five to ten times what professors receive. But I also think that everyone, including judges, has the right to speak his or her own opinion. So do four of the seven justices on the state Supreme Court who said no when the Judicial Discipline Commission tried to persuade the court to punish Judge Griffen for criticizing Broyles and telling some black legislators that they should reduce the university's appropriation if it didn't give Richardson his job back. Judge Griffen believes that Richardson was fired largely because he is black and that there is prejudice against blacks at the university. Griffen should know because he spent seven years on that campus. There had to be some prejudice because even after Broyles came to the university it was 10 years before the Razorbacks had a black athlete. The UA was the last college in the old Southwest Conference to have a black athlete. But when we vote on May 18, we should forget about Richardson and remember that nearly 17 percent of us in this state are African Americans, and not a one of them has ever been elected to a statewide office. Ending that oversight will improve the image of Arkansas and give its citizens the services of a bright, fair and intrepid Chief Justice. * * * Speaking of elections, the Pulaski County clerk's office run by retiring Carolyn Staley and her helpers hasn't really changed much. My wife and I have been voting at the Lakewood United Methodist Church for 46 years. The church is exactly one block from our house. However, in February we got cards from the clerk's office saying that from now on we will vote at Park Hill Christian Church on John F. Kennedy Boulevard. It is about 1.5 miles away. Then last week we got two more cards telling us that we should vote at the Lakewood United Methodist Church. Does that mean we get to vote twice?

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