Calls for Judge Piazza impeachment follow gay marriage ruling

story by Ryan Saylor

At least one member of the Arkansas House of Representatives has confirmed that he is pursuing impeachment against Pulaski County Circuit Judge Chris Piazza following his ruling Friday (May 9) that overturned the state's ban on gay marriage. But the speaker of the Arkansas House has vowed to block any such impeachment proceedings.

When Piazza overturned Arkansas' ban on gay marriage Friday, it was a ruling that sent shockwaves throughout the country as Arkansas became the first Southern state to have legalized gay marriage.

And while it did not take long for same-sex couples to start lining up at the Carroll County Courthouse to receive marriage licenses Saturday (May 10), it also did not take long for members of the Arkansas General Assembly to start discussing possible impeachment proceedings against Piazza.

According to Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, he has been in touch with unnamed members of the House who are interested in pursuing the charges against Piazza.

"I was contracted earlier this morning (May 10) by some of the House members who are inquiring as to whether or not that could be done," he said. "The procedure is that the House of Representatives would bring impeachment (charges) against any elected official or judge who has violated their oath to uphold the Arkansas Constitution."

Once charges are brought, a trial would take place in the Senate.

According to Rapert, there is ample cause for the House to impeach Piazza, explaining that the judge overturned the 2004 constitutional amendment against the will of the 75% of voters who voted for the amendment that limited marriage to one man and one woman.

"With the Arkansas marriage amendment, this is a clear example where the will of the people has been trampled by one judge. …It flies in the face of the foundation of this (country). It is very disappointing when you see the will of a majority of our nation…when someone like an activist judge thinks their will is greater than the majority of our state."

Rep. Justin Harris, R-West Fork, confirmed that he would pursue impeachment of Piazza, though he has not been part of an organized group of other representatives pushing for impeachment.

"We ask you to interpret the Constitution," he said of judges. "It kind of opened my eyes to how important circuit judges are. But to have total disregard of our Constitution, that's why I would move forward with impeachment and going toward that."

Rep. David Meeks, R-Conway, is another representative in favor of impeachment.

"Based on yesterday's ruling and how it was done, yes, I would generally be in support of impeachment," he said.

Meeks said even though it appears to him that there is a growing call for impeachment, it would be difficult to even get impeachment proceedings to take place with the legislature out of session.

"I think it would be something that would be up in the air because the House would have to start it and I don't know, since we're not in session, if the governor would have to call a special session."

Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe has said on previous occasions that he supports traditional marriage between one man and one woman. But Beebe spokesman Matt DeCample said the governor would not call a special session to consider impeachment of Piazza.

"No, because when it comes to the judiciary, you don't try to impeach a judge just because you don't agree with his ruling," DeCample said. "That's what the appeals process is for. That's the path we already know it going to be pursued."

Asked whether there was a procedure in which the legislature could consider impeachment without the governor calling the General Assembly back into session, DeCample said he was unsure and referred questions to the Arkansas Attorney General's office, which is closed on Saturdays.

The last time impeachment proceedings were considered by the House was earlier this year during the scandal that led to the eventual resignation of then-Lt. Gov. Mark Darr, who left office following an ethics scandal that showed he had misspent tens of thousands of dollars in both his office and his campaign accounts. The resignation occurred before impeachment proceedings could take place.

During the run up to Darr's resignation, there were questions on procedure since no impeachment has taken place under Arkansas' Constitution in modern history.

"Impeachment is not clear on how it should be done," Meeks said. "Because it hasn't been done in 100 years, there's not a procedure for how to go forward with it."

Even if House Republicans could convince Beebe to call a special session to consider articles of impeachment against Piazza, Speaker of the House Davy Carter, R-Cabot, said he would put a stop to any move toward impeachment, adding that his action would have nothing to do with Piazza's ruling.

"Notwithstanding the controversial subject matter of the decision, we are not going to impeach the circuit judge because members of the House don't like the decision," he said. "That's just not going to happen. That's a slippery slope. That's why we have separation of powers. That's the most absurd thing I've ever heard."

Carter continued, again stating, "I'm telling you that it's not going to happen."

He said such a move would fundamentally challenge the Constitutionally-established separation of powers in Arkansas and the United States.

"The General Assembly can't set precedent. I don't even know how you would do that. I don't know if it's possible. That's so far outside the boundaries of how this country has ran itself for centuries with separation of powers. I can't even get my mind around that concept to start impeaching circuit judges because we don't like their decisions. That's absurd. There's an election process. We have circuit judges that are elected, the Supreme Court, the appellate level. That's the way it works."

DeCample echoed Carter's remarks, saying that a planned appeal by Attorney General Dustin McDaniel — who personally supports gay marriage but is defending the state's Constitution in his role as the state's top attorney — is the proper way to handle disagreements with judicial rulings.

"That would be pretty unprecedented to impeach a judge for doing the job he was elected to do, which is interpret the law as he sees it. And if, in fact, his interpretation is incorrect, then that's what appeals proceedings are for."

Harris took issue with Carter's view on separation of powers and his insistence on stopping any impeachment moves by House members.

"That is flying in the face of us as far as separation of powers with the judicial branch making (a legislative decision). I respect the speaker. He's an attorney, but that goes against what the Constitution says. There is separation of powers and that's why we can impeach a judge. … It surprises me that he would go that far. He's one man, but he cannot rule on what the majority of the body would say, which would be hard to get (a majority for impeachment). But my understanding is that it would only take one member to get impeachment (considered by the full body)."

With the speaker not on board, only time will tell if Republicans pursue impeachment this year or during the 2015 legislative session.