Court Bans Judge From Death Penalty Cases

By George Khoury, Esq. on July 10, 2018 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The civil rights case of Arkansas judge Wendell Griffen against the Arkansas Supreme Court, and each of its members, was just dismissed by a three-judge panel of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Judge Griffen's case is a fascinating one, as he is an outspoken advocate against the death penalty and the state's high court barred him from hearing death penalty cases due to his alleged bias, and in accordance with the state's judicial ethics. And while that may seem extreme, not only has Judge Griffen blogged about his views against the death penalty, he participated in a protest where he laid down on a gurney in front of the governor's mansion while wearing an anti-death penalty button.

A Bad Time to Protest?

Some might be scratching their heads and saying, "So what, the judge participated in a protest, big deal." Well, one of the issues is that the protest happened just hours after he ruled in a significant case that essentially would have stopped the state from being able to complete any executions for an extended period of time. Also, due to his own views and extra-judicial public statements, under the state's rules recusal may have been warranted.

The decision quotes the applicable rule of judicial conduct in the state (2.11(A)(5)):

A judge shall disqualify himself or herself in any proceeding in which the judge's impartiality might reasonably be questioned, including but not limited to the following circumstances: The judge, while a judge or a judicial candidate, has made a public statement, other than in a court proceeding, judicial decision, or opinion, that commits or appears to commit the judge to reach a particular result or rule in a particular way in the proceeding or controversy.

Elimination of Bias

Though Judge Griffen may have lost his many pronged civil rights case, there are still clearly issues with requiring a judge to recuse themselves based on the judge's personal, or even political, beliefs. Attorneys and judges need to be able to set aside personal beliefs when carrying out their professional duties, and acknowledging when bias gets in the way actually requires skill and training.

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