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Griffen, Gruber playing by old rules in appeals court race

Experience counts.

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State Court of Appeals

District 6

Though he won the right for judges to talk openly about political issues, foreign and domestic, Judge Wendell Griffen is running for re-election by talking about his experience on the bench, the same sort of non-controversial fodder that judicial candidates have always employed. Anyone who looked for a more exciting, freer-spoken race between Griffen and Judge Rita Gruber has been disappointed so far. 

Griffen, 55, of Little Rock, seeks re-election to the state Court of Appeals, the state's second-highest court, inferior only to the state Supreme Court. His challenger is Pulaski Circuit Judge Rita Gruber, 57, of Sherwood. The Appeals Court hears cases from all over the state, but judges are elected by district. Griffen and Gruber are running in District 6 (Pulaski, Perry and Saline counties). The term is eight years.

By speaking up where other judges remain silent, Griffen has become Arkansas's most famous judge. This is not necessarily an asset. Indeed, it could prove to be a serious liability, politically. It gives him name recognition with the average voter, more than common for a judicial candidate, but that same voter may disagree with the generally liberal political views that Griffen has expressed. There's also testimony that most lawyers prefer judges who keep their mouths shut, and lawyers play a large part in the election of judges.

Because he spoke publicly and with some heat about war in Iraq, racism at the University of Arkansas, callousness in New Orleans, and other matters, Griffen was threatened with discipline by the state Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission. Arkansas and other states have long enforced rules prohibiting judges and judicial candidates from remarking on matters other than their judicial experience, their education and their integrity. (Which makes it hard for laymen to choose a candidate in a judicial race. Many will ask a lawyer for a recommendation. That's one reason why lawyers are important in judicial races. Another is that lawyers are the principal contributors to judicial candidates.) 

Griffen said the old rules had been invalidated by the U.S. Supreme Court, which held that judges possessed the same First Amendment rights as other Americans. Eventually, the commission agreed and dropped the charges against Griffen.

During the Court of Appeals campaign, Griffen hasn't talked about his problems with and victory over the Judicial Discipline Commission. Gruber hasn't either. Their supporters may have.

“The ethics thing is done,” Griffen said. “Detractors took their shot and I won. What I'm talking about is experience. I have 12 years deciding appeals. I've decided 2,600 appeals. My opponent has decided none.”

Gruber talks about her experience. She's been a judge longer than Griffen, 17 years to 12. A juvenile judge, she says the Appeals Court needs someone experienced in juvenile law and child-custody cases.

While apparently free to do so, the candidates are not announcing positions on the Iraq war, or President Bush, or capital punishment, or any other such issues. Some people feared the end of the old rules would lead to that, especially since Griffen has said that “voters are better served when they have more information about the people they're electing to office.”

He says now that the point of his disagreement with the Judicial Discipline Commission was “there's nothing improper about judges talking about those things off the bench.” He said the commission had proposed to discipline him for things he said outside the courtroom.

The race presents problems for liberal lawyers, who may agree with what Griffen said but don't agree with his saying it. One such lawyer, asked about a contribution to Gruber, said he thought he'd given to both candidates.

Gruber seems well thought of in the profession. Campaign finance reports show her raising more money than Griffen — $80,078 to $49,285 as of April 15 — and she apparently has more lawyers among her contributors. A fund-raising letter sent out by her campaign contained the names of an unusually large number of lawyers of all types.

But her biggest single contributor ($2,000) is Jack T. Stephens Jr. of Little Rock, a businessman and well-heeled supporter of conservative causes and candidates. Another $500 came from the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce PAC. Griffen is considered a champion of workers' rights, both as an appeals judge and as chairman of the state Workers Compensation Commission (1985-87).

 

Districts 3 and 7

Two other Court of Appeals seats, both open, are on the ballot. In District 3 (Benton, Washington, Crawford, Carroll, Madison, Franklin and Johnson counties), lawyers Courtney Henry, 35, of Fayetteville, and Ron Williams, 60, of Springdale are the candidates. Though judicial races are officially nonpartisan, some partisans will be watching this one closely. Northwest Arkansas is strongly Republican, and Williams has been conspicuously endorsed by prominent Republican politicians in the area, including Jim Holt, an anti-immigrant activist and former state senator. Holt has been employed as a consultant by Williams and has been writing letters of endorsement to fellow “patriots.” Williams himself promises a “conservative judicial philosophy.” Henry appears to have more support from lawyers than Williams does, but there are more Republicans than lawyers in the area. Henry says, “Any candidate who will tell you, either ‘on the record,' or ‘off the record' that he has a particular party affiliation in order to gain your support is violating both the spirit and the letter of the law.” Republicans note that she is the daughter-in-law of Democratic activists Ann and Dr. Morriss Henry of Fayetteville.

Waymond Brown, 39, of Pine Bluff, a district judge, and Eugene Hunt, 62, a lawyer, are running for the District 7 (Jefferson, Arkansas, Desha, Chicot, Phillips, Lee and St. Francis counties) position on the appeals court.  

 

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