House approves resolution to adopt impeachment rules

by Wesley Brown ([email protected]) 678 views 

Although Arkansas House Speaker Jeremy Gillam said a resolution he sponsored Wednesday was not related to a slew of legislative complaints against Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen, the Arkansas House of Representatives adopted rules Wednesday that would allow lawmakers to move forward with impeachment proceedings if members so choose.

Gillam, a Republican from Judsonia, called the House back to order immediately after the 100-member chamber adjourned following a three-day special session called by Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Monday.

In an unusual procedural move to consider House Resolution (HR) 1001, Gillam told the chamber he presided over during the 91st General Assembly that he was bringing the resolution to the full body because of his long-standing desire to address impeachable offenses by elected officials.

“We had a couple of instances with elected officials that occurred during the timeframe with Speaker (Davy) Carter … that began the process of what would happen if we needed to as a body to go down the road of impeachment,” he said. “So, I am here before you today because it is something that needs to addressed in our rules. Recent conversations from our colleagues on the other end of our building have brought to light that we did have a deficiency in our House rules to that.”

Gillam said he took responsibility for not addressing that issue earlier after he filed HR1001 on Tuesday to promulgate rules for impeachment proceedings. However, he said the timing was right to bring the issue to House members before they went home after 2017 regular session and special session ended.

“I take responsibility for not pressing forward and getting those things done in half the time. This should have been done and this is a process we should have had in our rules in the eventual case that something would happen – it should have been done a while ago,” he said.

Without mentioning Griffen’s name, Gillam said the debate over his resolution would be a “Rorschach test” for the House members because of concerns expressed publicly in recent weeks by several lawmakers that the Pulaski County judge should be impeached. On Monday, Sen. Trent Garner, R-El Dorado, made a public plea to fellow lawmakers to move forward with impeachment proceedings against Griffen.

“I did not want us to continue without having something in place. I am not bringing this before you today to take any action to do anything. I am simply asking you to join with me to getting the framework into the rules,” he said.

Following Gillam’s speech, in which he said he sought the advice of lawmakers in Alabama, Illinois and other states where public officials have been impeached, House members engaged in 90 minutes of acrimonious debate often mentioning the Little Rock judge. Rep. Fred Allen, D-Little Rock, was the first lawmaker to bring up a direct question that tied Griffen to Gillam’s resolution. He first asked the House Speaker why he saw fit to address rules for a formal impeachment process for the first time in the state’s history.

“Earlier one of my colleagues mentioned Judge (Griffen). My question is – is this why we are in such a pace to put something in place to start the impeachment process for the judge?” Allen asked. “I think we have to be very careful that we don’t go down that slippery slope because it could be the judge today, and one of us tomorrow.”

Later in the long debate, several other members also brought up Griffen by name or indirectly. Rep. Karilyn Brown, R-Sherwood, spoke in favor of the resolution, saying the House needed to have a process in place just in case the legislature sought to impeach a public official.

“Perhaps there is a situation that people are considering addressing, but when you realize that we don’t really have any orderly process in place, then this is something we needed to do for quite some time,” Brown said. “We don’t need a chaotic process like in some Third World country.”

Rep. Mickey Gates, R-Hot Springs, said those who opposed the resolution because of “separation of powers” concerns should make the same argument when the judiciary interferes with the legislative branch.

“This is a checks and balances. It is we in the legislature who determine what the laws of Arkansas are going to be,” Gates said.

The Republican businessman from Hot Springs then added: “I was one of those people who called the Speaker and said, “I found the actions of Judge Griffen to be inappropriate and I was one of those who called and there were numerous calls by that time. And I was told at that time, ‘just hold on’ because the process needs to be defined.”

Rep. John Walker, D-Little Rock, who first brought up the resolution in the waning minutes of the special session, told Gillam that the Arkansas Constitution did not give him the authority to call the House back into session after adjournment. Walker, an attorney, said Gillam’s action would likely cause the legislature to end up in court if impeachment actions were brought against Griffen. He left the House chamber before Gillam called the House back into session.

In the end, House members approved the resolution by a vote of 73-13, with 13 members not voting. Gov. Hutchinson told reporters later after the vote that it “made sense” to him for the House to adopt impeachment rules, but said he does not believe it was directed at any specific person. When asked about possible impeachment proceedings against Griffen, the governor refused to weigh in on the matter.

“This is a legislative function in our Constitution,” Hutchinson said of HR1001. “I don’t see a specific role for the executive branch.”

However, Article 15 of the Arkansas Constitution does say that “the governor, upon the joint address of two-thirds of all the members elected to each House of the General Assembly, for good cause, may remove the Auditor, Treasurer, Secretary of State, Attorney-General, Judges of the Supreme and Circuit Courts, Chancellors and Prosecuting Attorneys.”

During the back-and-forth between House members, Gillam also took the time to explain how impeachment proceedings would work under the provisions of HR 1001. In one explanation, Gillam said the House would serve as the grand jury to investigate and bring charges of impeachment, while the Senate would ultimately hold a trial and convict or acquit.

However, for any action to be brought against Griffen or a public official, a House member must find at least 34 co-sponsors to initiate the process. If that happens, Gillam said he would refer his resolution back to the House Rules committee to investigate and make a recommendation to the full House as to whether a “cause” exists to impeach that is subject to articles of impeachment. If that threshold is met, then the committee will then adopt rules to govern the impeachment proceedings “to ensure due process, fundamental fairness and a thorough investigation.”

Once the proceedings begin, the meetings must be held in a public forum where a standing or ad hoc House committee will hear testimony to determine if there is cause for removing a public official from office. After the legislative probe ends, then the House panel must submit a recommendation to the full House, along with a report regarding its findings and conclusions.

After other considerations by the committee, the House Speaker can call the full body into order to consider an impeachment resolution and the recommendation of the panel. Passage of the resolution would need a majority roll-call vote by the 100-member body.

On Tuesday evening, Garner called Gillam’s resolution a “great first step” in his quest to remove the local judge from the Pulaski Court Circuit Court. The El Dorado senator said he hopes House members can move swiftly with impeachment proceedings as they can come up with necessary rules to carry out the first legislative arraignment of an Arkansas judge in state history.

“The process for an impeachment has never been done under our Constitution,” Garner said. “We put down the ground rules today. I am very supportive of the House for voting on that resolution so we have something in place so we can move forward. It is great first step in this process.”

Besides Garner, a number of other Republican lawmakers have criticized Griffen publicly, on social media, and in internal communications among House and Senate members for the judge’s participation in an anti-death penalty protest. On that same day, Griffen also issued a ruling halting Arkansas’ execution schedule in a case brought by a manufacturer seeking to block the state’s use of one of its alleged lethal injection drugs.

Griffen is also under investigation by the Judicial Discipline & Disability Commission for potential misconduct and he has been blocked by the Arkansas Supreme Court from participating in additional death row legal filings.