Friday, January 26, 2007

EDITORIALS>>A victory for free speech

The Arkansas Supreme Court handed a big victory to Appeals Court Judge Wendell Griffen Thursday and a small one to the people of Arkansas. Or we may have it reversed.

Judge Griffen has been fighting to preserve his good reputation, which he thought required the state Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission to give him an open hearing before it charges him with violating judicial ethics, a hearing that he and all the people of Arkansas who elect judges might be able to follow.

The Supreme Court finally said that Griffen deserved it. Not everyone necessarily, but at least him. If he wants the public to hear it all, the justices said, then he’s entitled to have that happen, too.

The commission and its executive director, James Badami, have been trying for years to pin a formal rebuke or worse on Judge Griffen’s resume because on a few occasions in the 10 years that he has been on the Arkansas Court of Appeals a remark that he made about some national or state issue got into the public prints somewhere. The commission’s first rebuke, years ago, was overturned by the state Supreme Court.

The state canon of ethics for judges said judges or candidates for judge should not take public stands on political matters, but the U. S. Supreme Court ruled that such canons violate the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution. It said freedom of speech applied to judges as well as everyone else.

Badami wanted to make another pass at formally rebuking Griffen in spite of the rulings of the state and federal high courts so he undertook a fresh investigation last year while Griffen was running for a seat on the Supreme Court. The splash of publicity about his being under investigation for judicial misconduct helped torpedo that campaign.

The commission and its director wanted to hold a preliminary hearing on the accusations against Griffen in secret, citing its own rules that the proceedings were to be confidential.

But the purpose of the confidentiality is to protect accused judges from harsh publicity if the accusations later turn out to be false. Griffen waived the confidentiality.

He revealed that the commission was investigating him and he wanted people to know everything that he was accused of and exactly how Badami, the commission and he handled the issues.

There seemed to be a fundamental principle at stake: a man’s right to have people see what the government was doing to him. High station should not mean forfeiture of that right. You would think that an agency bound to enforce ethical conduct in public office would be most eager to honor that principle.

The Supreme Court did not rule on the basis of such a cherished doctrine. Rather, it said, if the commission and Badami had given any reason whatever for maintaining secrecy in the matter the court might have entertained it.

But they provided no justification, not even a hint of what benefit might be advanced or what right might be protected by closed doors.

It was a sweet victory for Griffen, who has already been savaged repeatedly by the editorial page of the Arkansas Democrat Gazette over the investigation. At a religious forum (he is a Baptist minister) or another over the past three years, Griffen had criticized President Bush’s conduct of the war in Iraq, the U.S. Justice Department’s interference with the privacy of Americans and the government’s handling of the crisis after Hurricane Katrina, and he mentioned early last year that he would like to see a higher minimum wage for Arkansas workers.

Like Badami, the newspaper thought Griffen should be punished for uttering those ideas. Censure would be tantamount to ending his judicial career.

Griffen and free speech are still in jeopardy, but we may thank the honorable justices for preserving this small vestige of it, the right to a public airing of an overreaching government’s case against a public servant.