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7th justice faces ethics charge over case

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LITTLE ROCK -- A disciplinary panel filed ethics charges Thursday against a seventh member of the Arkansas Supreme Court Thursday over the court's decision to prohibit a judge who participated in an anti-death penalty demonstration from handling any execution-related cases.

A Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission panel formally filed charges against Justice Shawn Womack over the court's handling of the case involving Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen, who was photographed on a cot outside the governor's mansion last year wearing an anti-death penalty button and surrounded by people holding signs opposing executions. Earlier that day, Griffen blocked the state from using a lethal injection drug over claims the company had been misled by the state.

Days after the demonstration, the court removed Griffen from the drug lawsuit and barred him from hearing any death penalty cases.

The disciplinary panel said the court never gave Griffen notice or an opportunity to be heard over his removal from death penalty cases. The panel filed identical charges against the other six members of the court over the Griffen case last month. In the filings, the panel said it found probable cause that Womack and the court acted "arbitrarily and capriciously."

The complaint against the justices was filed by Griffen, who was charged earlier this year by the disciplinary panel over the demonstration.

In a statement, Womack said he believed there were "substantive" issues with the case and claimed one of the members of the panel had a conflict of interest.

Chief Justice Dan Kemp told a legislative panel this week that he believed the complaint over the handling of Griffen's case is a legal issue, not an ethical issue under the commission's authority.

The justices have 30 days to respond to the charges and will have a hearing before the full, nine-member commission. The commission can recommend the justices be suspended or removed if they're found to have violated judicial rules of conduct.

The final decision would be up to seven special justices who would have to be appointed by the governor to hear the case.

The panel could also issue a public admonishment, reprimand the justices or censure them. The commission is scheduled to take up the case against Griffen over the demonstration in March.

State Desk on 10/06/2018

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