Wendell Griffen is an ordained Baptist minister and circuit judge in Pulaski County, Arkansas. On April 14, 2017, Judge Griffen issued a temporary restraining order that effectively halted six scheduled executions, the first applications of capital punishment in Arkansas since 2005. Judge Griffen generated controversy that same day, Good Friday, when he joined an anti-death penalty protest organized by his church outside the Arkansas Governor’s Mansion. Calls for Griffen’s impeachment soon spread across the state. In a special session last month, the state legislature, which has never impeached an elected official since the adoption of the 1874 Arkansas Constitution, voted 73-13 to establish a legal framework for impeachment. Judge Griffen has recently published a book The Fierce Urgency of Prophetic Hope (Judson Press) and also manages a blog on faith and the law, Justice is a verb!
The Politic: Much of the controversy over your recent activity has centered on the conflict between constitutional speech protections and judicial impropriety. How do you manage that balance?
Wendell Griffen: It’s quite easy: the business of a judge is to hear evidence and to apply the law of the realm to the facts as the judge finds them. I have no difficulty applying the law of Arkansas and the law of the United States to the facts in cases presented before me, even when I find my personal views to differ from that law. That’s my obligation, the obligation of every judge: to follow the law and to uphold the Constitution of the United States. And those are not inconsistent norms. They are entirely consistent obligations. I have the constitutional obligation to follow the law, and I have the constitutional freedom to live out my faith. And both of those things can be done with great comfort, even if people find the way I do so inconvenient or disagreeable.
TP: So can a judge also be an activist?
WG: I think a judge can be a human. And that means they can be activist if they choose to be, or less activist if they choose to be. “Activist” is a term I find to be rather value-laden. People call folks “activists” not based upon whether or not the activity is permissible, but based on whether or not they agree with the activity. If you like what the judge does, then the judge is right. If you dislike what the judge does, the judge is an activist. I’d rather say that I like being a judge who knows my obligations to the bench and knows my freedom in society. And I recognize that those obligations and freedoms are not necessarily inconsistent or contradictory.
TP: As an ordained minister, you draw great influence from the Bible, and the Gospels in particular. How has your faith helped guide you over the past few weeks?
WG: The prophetic tradition, in both the Hebrew canon and culminating in the life and ministry of Jesus, has been my prime source of inspiration. The prophetic tradition is always a counter-narrative to what people accept as conventional wisdom and prevailing thought. The tendency that we have in life is to ignore the prophetic tradition when in fact it is the source from which we get our notions of justice and mercy and peace. The prophetic tradition teaches us that we shouldn’t jump just because people say “Boo.” If one is to live a great life, one has to expect that people exercise power will take offense and will engage in comments and acts that are threatening.
TP: In the Gospels, Jesus says to go forth and spread the Word to all nations. How do you balance that imperative with the impartiality expected of judges?
WG: The impartiality needed to be a judge has to do with parties. The root word of impartiality is “party.” And the word impartiality means that one applies the same standards to any party that appears before the judge, no matter who that party is and no matter what the judge may hold as his or her personal views. And so the sense of living out one’s faith does not ever necessarily pose a challenge to impartiality unless the judge is taking sides with a party to a dispute and not applying the law evenhandedly to all parties.
Impartiality does not mean that the judge has no values. Impartiality does not mean the judge has no views. Impartiality does not mean the judge is silent about his or her views. Nor does impartiality mean that the judge’s views, or values, or expression of those views or values, somehow render that judge a partisan. One does not become a partisan because one has opinions. I think we have to have enough maturity as citizens and enough understanding of language to recognize that fact. When Jesus says “go make disciples, go spread good news” Jesus is simply saying to go spread to the whole of creation loving God with one’s whole person and loving one’s neighbors as oneself—to live that way, to respect God with one’s entire being, and to respect all other persons as oneself. And that is not in any way inconsistent with being a fair-minded person. If anything, it’s an expression of the ideal of fairness.
TP: Does the threat of impeachment from the Arkansas State House worry you?
WG: No, it doesn’t worry me. One should not get worried about threats. Otherwise one would be worried all the time. Threats are no more and no less than that: threats.
TP: If you could go back, would you still attend that Good Friday protest?
WG: Yes, I would do the same thing again. I am always struck by the people who find prophetic protest unbecoming. They haven’t read much of the prophets of the Old Testament. One of them [Isaiah] walked around naked. There are examples in the Hebrew canon where the prophets acted out the proclamations they were to give in much the same way you would see Saturday Night Live doing a caricature of present-day political events. So I encourage us to take a deeper and wider viewer of things, take some breaths, not get so strung out just because we find ourselves displeased with what somebody does or how it comes across to us. As long as the conduct is not violating the rights of other people or is not immoral, we should respect the humanity of other people, to give them the room to be human and to express their identity, even if we find ourselves disagreeing with the way they express it.
TP: What draws you to service?
WG: I have been inspired to service since childhood by the Gospel of Jesus and by my experience growing up in the segregated South during the 1950s. I know firsthand what it means to live in an oppressive society where the decks in the halls of law are stacked against one based upon personhood, whether it’s racial identity, sex, religion, nationality, and now sexual orientation, gender identity, or ability status. I know what that means. And having grown up in that environment, I was moved to dedicate myself to do two things: first, to learn as much as I could about democracy and the rule of law; and, secondly, to apply myself as much as possible to serve humanity in a way that is consistent with my understanding of the religion of Jesus and the highest ideals of our constitutional democracy.
TP: The name of your blog is Justice is a verb! What does that mean to you?
WG: Justice is typically viewed as a noun—the name for either an office or a process. Justice, however, must be understood as something that must be done. We do justice. And I draw from the admonition in Micah, where the prophet writes, what does the Lord require of me but to do justice and love mercy and to walk humbly with God? Justice has to be done. And doing is verb stuff; doing is not noun stuff. Doing is acting, protecting, defending, sharing. Justice involves generosity, and welcoming, and inclusion, and refusing to allow the status quo to operate as an excuse for oppression. Those are things that we must do in order for justice to happen.
TP: What has the response been like from the public in Arkansas?
WG: Within and outside Little Rock, the overwhelming response I have received has been positive, almost at the point of being inspirational. People say, “Listen, Griffen, you’re doing what we hope all justices, all judges, all people of faith will do: act and live true to what you understand your obligations are in your judicial office and your faith. We may or may not agree with you, but we respect you your integrity, your courage to be forthright in doing so.”
As people learn more about the facts surrounding my Good Friday ruling [which temporarily halted six executions], I don’t understand why people are upset, why people want to impeach me. The response that I have received has been overwhelmingly positive and heartwarming.
TP: Is gauging the public response important to you?
WG: No, because one has to be very careful not to use public opinion as a wind gauge. Public opinion is not a compass. One must be led by something that motivates action no matter what public opinion may be. Because public opinion can be mistaken, misled. Jesus himself was a victim of that. Palm Sunday, he comes into Jerusalem, saluted and celebrated. By Good Friday, he was vilified and the multitudes demand he be put to death. So one has to be very careful not to become intoxicated by the heady wind of public opinion. It is heartwarming when people commend you. It’s nice of them to do to take time out to pass on a kind and encouraging word. But Abraham Lincoln was right: “Do right.” Do right and let the consequences deal with themselves. If I am wrong and public opinion is wholly in my favor, I am still wrong. If I am right and public opinion is totally against me, I’m still right. And I don’t think I should decide whether or not my opinion is right based on an opinion poll. I think I should make a serious effort to decide whether my thinking and behavior is right and then as best I can be true to those thoughts and live in a way that’s faithful to my ideal. And if the public finds that commendable, well then be it. If the public commends me for it, then that is what the public has chosen to do. Martin Luther King, Jr. went to his grave vilified as someone unpatriotic, opposed to the war in Vietnam, an outside agitator, a race-baiter, and we know that the people who vilified him were wrong.
TP: So you see something similar about being a citizen faithful to religious texts and a judge faithful to legal texts?
WG: For sure. I remind people that every elected official in the United States is required by the Constitution to swear an oath to support the Constitution of the United States. In the wall of my judicial chambers, I have a poster of Frederick Douglass with a quotation that I used recently in my blog in which Douglass says, “There is no ‘Negro problem.’ The problem is whether the American people have loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough, to live up to their own Constitution.”
Loyalty, and honor, and patriotism are not throwaway words. They are ideals to which we are obligated to live or to prove ourselves disloyal, dishonorable, and unpatriotic. If we are unwilling to live up to the Constitution we swear our allegiance to, then we are disloyal, unpatriotic, dishonorable, hypocritical.
And it’s about a person following any faith system—I wouldn’t limit it to religion of Jesus. I think that we need to think of what I’ve talked about as fidelity for one’s conscience, regardless if someone’s a religionist or a secularist. Because that’s the heart of the First Amendment, which protects our freedom to have a religion or to have no religion at all. Some people might find that fidelity in Buddhism, or in some other world religion. I find that fidelity in the religion of Jesus as the highest and best expression of my hope. Some people may find it in no religion at all. But what I’m trying to talk about is our sense of commitment, our obligation to honor conscience. To be true and loyal to something bigger than ourselves, our personal comfort, our personal privilege, our personal prerogative.
TP: What message do you wish to tell the youngest generation?
WG: I would ask people of every age to remember that our democracy depends upon people engaging in Socratic critique of ourselves and the systems and ideologies around us. Our democracy does not run well when people put their minds in park or in neutral. We have to be careful. And we have to have the moral and emotional maturity, wisdom, and honesty to rethink our views, and to acknowledge that at best we have only part of the answer, and that there might be a truth we have not yet learned. Young people have a great potential to question, to challenge. I would encourage young people to read, and to challenge, and to think, and to rethink, and to dare when necessary to unthink, to uproot, to tear down false notions that pass for truth. Young people can build from the ashes something that is more likely to be true and to last.
This interview has been edited for concision and clarity.