I thought I'd update you today on what's happening with my friend Judge (and Reverend) Wendell Griffen right now. As his recent Democracy Now! interview with Amy Goodman and Juan González reports, a move is afoot to have him impeached as a member of the Arkansas judiciary due to his outspoken opposition — as a Christian pastor — to the death penalty. On Good Friday, he took part in a protest against the death penalty organized by the church he pastors, New Millennium Baptist church in Little Rock, and the impeachment proceedings are due to his participation in that protest.
As Wendell states in his Democracy Now! interview, this is not by any means the first time that the white racist power structure in Arkansas has tried to shut him down as an outspoken African-American judge and pastor who speaks his mind. He states,
The issue is not whether or not I followed the law on Good Friday. The issue really is—and I think Trent Garner has made this very clear. Senator Trent Garner has made it clear. He has a long-standing objection to the fact that Wendell Griffen, as a person, and Wendell Griffen, as a judge, holds views about public policy and life that he finds objectionable. I believe that people should earn a living wage, and I'm not afraid to say so. I believe that it is wrong for us to demonize immigrants, for us to pick on our LGBTQ brothers and sisters, for us to marginalize people because they are different. I supported marriage equality. I am glad that we have finally in Arkansas embraced the notion that all persons are entitled to live out their love openly and honestly without being demonized for it and having to be forced to live in the shadows. There are people who find my perspective on life and on faith abhorrent. They have a right to do that. But they don’t have a right as public officials to punish me or to try to punish anybody else simply because they disagree with what I view life should be.
I think that we, as public officials, have a responsibility to honor the freedom in this society to disagree. That's a wonderful thing. And it is something very dishonorable—we have a word for it, "tyranny"—something very dishonorable when we use power to punish people with whom we disagree. And so, this issue involving impeachment is nothing that I need to think about, other than simply the latest effort to punish a judge, a black judge—I will say it, a black judge—with whom the white power structure in Arkansas disagrees. And I am a black judge and a black preacher. And just like the power structure disagreed with Martin King and found him objectionable, the power structure in Arkansas disagrees with Wendell Griffen and finds me objectionable. But I think that the important thing for me to remember is, if I am to be faithful to the law, I've got to follow the law, no matter whether the people agree with me or not, or whether people approve of me or not. If I'm going to be faithful to my faith, I’ve got to live true to my faith, even if people find my faith objectionable and even if they’re willing to punish me for it. And I've got to be willing to say, "If you want to punish me for my faith, I'm going to live out my faith. You can decide whether to punish me."
At his Justice is a verb! blog site, Wendell adds,
On May 8, 2017, I spoke with Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez, co-hosts of Democracy Now, about the controversy surrounding an April 14, 2017 temporary restraining order (TRO) that I issued concerning a pharmaceutical distributor whose drug product had been wrongfully and deceitfully obtained by the Arkansas Department of Corrections. After I issued the TRO, I followed through with plans our congregation (New Millennium Church) had previously made to attend a Good Friday prayer vigil in front of the Arkansas Governor's Mansion.
Without notice to me and without allowing me any opportunity to be heard, the Attorney General of Arkansas and Arkansas Supreme Court engaged in ex parte (meaning hearing from only one side) communications based on the Attorney General's motion to remove me from the case and vacate the TRO on April 17, 2017, before I could hold a hearing on the dispute scheduled for April 18, 2017. The interview with Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez focused on demands by some Arkansas politicians who have called for my impeachment and removal from the bench because of my Good Friday TRO ruling and my prayer vigil attendance. I am pasting the YouTube link to that interview for your information.
Do we truly have a democracy if judges are not free to hold and express beliefs about issues affecting our life together? Does faithfulness to religious conviction disqualify a judge from performing the duties of that office, let alone hold the office at all? Do we truly believe that judges cannot and will not follow the law when they disagree about the law they are sworn to uphold? How am I reacting to calls for my impeachment?I hope the interview provides information about my thinking on these and related questions.
And in a wonderful tribute to Wendell on the Broadside site of Beacon Press, the talented African-American writer Rashod Ollison, whom Wendell mentored as a young African-American man seeking to find his way in the world when Ollison attended Wendell's church in Little Rock years back, writes,
Seeing Griffen on Democracy Now! and the protest pictures of him strapped to a gurney in front of the Governor's mansion, I can't imagine the man I knew thirty years ago doing such a thing. He was much younger then, accomplished but still climbing in his career and had two young sons, now well-adjusted young men. But that "prophetic fire" still burns in him, crackling even more with age. He still stands firmly in what's morally sound, giving voice to the voiceless in Arkansas, including openly embracing the LGBTQ community, a bold stance for such a high profile black man in the conservative religious and legal circles of Arkansas. On the gurney several feet away from the governor’s front door, Griffen lay to stand in his truth, dignified in his defiance, motivated by love. That's the man I always knew.
Since I met Wendell and his wife Patricia (to whom I have family ties, in that my aunt taught her English at Ouachita University when my uncle was the academic vice-president there), I have said — for some years now — that Wendell and Pat Griffen are among the very best things the state of Arkansas has going for it. Long after those who persistently attack Wendell because he is outspoken in defending his beliefs as an African-American leader have fallen to dust in their graves and are forgotten by historians — as they richly deserve to be — the contributions of the Griffens to the state of Arkansas will be remembered and celebrated.
As they richly deserve to be remembered and celebrated.
I'm writing this tribute on the day Wendell officiated at my marriage to Steve in the Pulaski County, Arkansas, courthouse in 2014 — an event I remember with deep gratitude. The story of what is being done to Wendell Griffen now in the state of Arkansas deserves national attention: it is a foretaste of what is now coming for many people of principle in our nation, if we allow the lawlessness and immmorality emanating from the very top of American government to continue to ripple down through state legislatures and governors' mansions.
The photo of Judge Wendell Griffen is from his Twitter page.