NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · ARKANSAS · Secret Courts · Jan. 29, 2007
Court orders judge’s hearing open to public
Jan. 29, 2007 · The Arkansas Supreme Court ruled on Thursday in favor of a judge’s request to make a disciplinary proceeding open to the public and news media.
Judge Wendell Griffen, a state appeals judge, has been accused of violating the state’s judicial code of conduct by inappropriately speaking out on the war in Iraq and other current issues.
Griffen said that his comments were protected by the First Amendment. He proceeded to waive confidentiality on any aspects regarding his case, including his probable cause proceeding before the state Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission, the body charged with disciplining state judges.
When the commission’s executive director, James Badami, refused to open the proceeding, Griffen took his request to the state Supreme Court.
A probable cause “meeting” is held to determine whether a formal disciplinary hearing is necessary and if not, whether the judge should receive a warning or should be ordered to modify his behavior. Griffen’s meeting, originally scheduled for November, was rescheduled for January and later put on hold until the court made a decision regarding whether it should be open to the public and media.
Griffen argued that a closed probable cause meeting would be in violation of his First Amendment rights as well as the state’s Freedom of Information Act.
State law provides that Judicial Commission proceedings held “prior to a determination of probable cause and the filing of formal charges shall be confidential.”
But the justices noted that in a probable cause meeting, the commission may decide not to pursue formal charges but may take some other disciplinary measure, such as publicly admonishing the judge. An amendment to the state constitution requires judges to receive a “hearing” before they are disciplined, which the high court said suggests an open proceeding.
“Making an admonishment or other required adjustment of the judge’s conduct a potential result of a private probable cause meeting adds a new dimension to the proceeding and appears to this court to militate in favor of openness, should the judge desire it,” Justice Robert Brown wrote for the court.
The court wrote that the “pivotal point” was Griffen’s waiver of confidentiality. Though the justices noted that confidentiality is not intended only to protect the judge’s reputation, they said they were disturbed the commission did not provide a reason to close the proceeding.
The justices said confidentiality can be used as a tool to protect witnesses. However, they noted that the commission had no witnesses for Griffen’s proceeding.
“We conclude that Judge Griffen is correct that under the facts of this case, where he has waived confidentiality, and where judicial discipline may be imposed, the formal probable-cause meeting should be open to the public and the news media,” the court wrote.
(Griffen v. Arkansas Judicial Discipline And Disability Commission) — AG