As the Arkansas legislature prepares to end its three-day special session tomorrow, a House panel today approved a resolution by Republican House Speaker Jeremy Gillam that would open the door for the General Assembly to move forward with impeachment proceedings. Several state lawmakers have advocated for an impeachment of Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen from his judicial post in the wake of his ruling on Arkansas’ recent executions.
Under House Resolution (HR) 1001 approved by the House Rules committee, the state House of Representatives can move forward with such proceedings under the Arkansas Constitution if the House Speaker is able to get 34 members to co-sponsor a measure to file articles of impeachment.
“Upon filing of the impeachment resolution, the Speaker of the House shall refer the impeachment resolution to committee for the following purposes: To investigate the allegations asserted in the articles of impeachment; and to make a recommendation to the House of Representatives as to whether cause exist to impeach the official that is subject of the articles of impeachment,” Gillam’s resolution reads.
Although the resolution does not mention Griffen’s name specifically, Gillam’s filing comes only one day after Sen. Trent Garner, R-El Dorado, called for the Arkansas House to bring articles of impeachment against the Pulaski County judge.
“Because of his gross misconduct in office, I am calling for the Arkansas House of Representatives to bring an article of impeachment against Judge Wendell Griffen. He should never again be allowed to hold office of any sort in Arkansas. We as the General Assembly can remove the stain that Griffen has left on our judicial integrity,” Garner said in a prepared statement on Monday.
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 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 a great first step in this process.”
IMPEACHMENT PROCEEDINGS WOULD BE HELD IN PUBLIC
Under the details of HR1001, if 34 House members sign onto an impeachment resolution, it is referred to the House Rules committee to investigate and make recommendations to the full House as to whether “cause” exists to impeach an elected official. If that threshold is met, then the committee will 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 the House committee will hear testimony to determine if there is cause for removing someone 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.
The state’s Constitution says the Arkansas State Senate would conduct the impeachment trial with the state Supreme Court’s Chief Justice presiding over proceedings unless he is the one being impeached. A two-thirds majority of the Senate would have to vote to impeach to remove the elected official from office.
But first, Garner said he needs to “whip” the 34 co-sponsors to initiate the first step of the process. “I don’t want to make any prediction, but I imagine there is some support behind (me) to reach that number. I haven’t done any kind of whipping or finding out the vote total, but my general feeling is they’ll be able to find that many co-sponsors.”
Besides Garner, a number of other Republican lawmakers have publicly criticized Griffen for his participation in an anti-death penalty protest on the same day that he 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.
“To protect the integrity of the judicial system this court has a duty to ensure that all are given a fair and impartial tribunal. We find it necessary to immediately reassign all cases in the Fifth Division that involve the death penalty or the state’s execution protocol, whether civil or criminal,” the state’s high court said on April 17 in removing Judge Griffen from cases for consideration.
Griffen struck back on April 27. He requested that the Arkansas Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission and the Arkansas Committee on Professional Conduct investigate the Arkansas Supreme Court, Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, and certain members of her legal staff “for possible violations of the Arkansas Code of Judicial Conduct and the Arkansas Code of Professional Conduct.”
In a statement to the media on Monday, Garner called Griffen a “disgrace to the court,” saying the local judge attacked the integrity of our legal system by showing some parties can’t get a fair trial in his court. The El Dorado Republican was also a witness for the execution of Kenneth Williams on April 27.
Meanwhile, Senate President Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, has cautioned senators to refrain from publicly discussing potential impeachment proceedings of the judge.
“I ask that you heavily weigh any public comments that you make regarding this process and its outcome. Impeachment is a serious matter. Our role in the process requires an enhanced level of restraint,” Dismang said two weeks ago. “In a sense, each [of] us will become 35 independent jurors. We will be under oath and we will have a duty to act objectively when making our determinations… Pre-emptive proclamations of opinion regarding the possible concurrence by members of the Senate will undoubtedly allow the public to call into the question the integrity of the trial and our ability to remain impartial as jurors.”
Garner said he appreciates Dismang’s leadership and warning about discussing impeachment proceedings, but believes the legislature can move forward with a fair and impartial trial. He said one concern he has weighed is waiting until the judicial commission’s probe is complete before moving forward with such proceedings.
“I personally think and hope for us to have a game-plan with a timetable in concurrence with the (judicial commission). I know there are some members who would like that process to play out first …, but I am encouraging people to move forward with our investigation.”
House Speaker Gillam did not return a phone call from Talk Business & Politics seeking comment for this story. Judge Griffen was not immediately available for comment.