OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: Arrogance over duty

Attorney General Tim Griffin, on a bit of a losing streak in Pulaski Circuit Court, said in a television interview the other day that it's not required that the governor and her embattled prison director talk with state Board of Corrections members about prison issues.

What is required, Griffin said, is that those prison board members follow the law, which he said they aren't, though they're not the ones mired in a courtroom slump.

He says the board violated a couple of statutes and illegally hired an outside lawyer to represent it when his office is the legal entity to do that ... if it would, which it won't.

Griffin prefers to represent Gov. Sarah Sanders and her prison secretary from Arizona, the ones who say they don't have to meet, and don't want to meet.

Board members cite the state Constitution--Amendment 33, which empowers them. Constitutions prevail over statutes in non-banana jurisdictions.

Maybe all that is hard to follow. It is indeed quite a mess. So, I'll wade through it. Those on the fence or new to the feud can ponder whether arrogance--my word for the Sanders-Griffin position--is fair.

They also might ponder where this intra-state litigation in place of executive governing techniques amounts to public time and public money well-spent.

The governor brought in a Tommy Robinson lock-'em-up type from Arizona, Joe Profiri, to be her cabinet secretary for prisons. His assignment was to get all these inmates out of county jails and into the state prison so that sheriffs could refill their county jails with new miscreants who wouldn't be signed out for lack of space to do more crimes.

Then she got the Legislature to pass bills saying the prison director answers to her, and prison management officials answer to him.

The Corrections Board didn't like that concept, seeing a conflict with Amendment 33, approved by voters in 1942, that grandfathered in certain oversight responsibility and authority for the board. But they didn't put up a vigorous fight at the time because there was no stopping Sarah on her honeymoon, and maybe there isn't now.

In the past, when better-meaning governors like Winthrop Rockefeller and David Pryor didn't like the state Constitution, they had constitutional conventions called to try to write a new one. Sanders and Griffin simply pretend the one we have is irrelevant or merely advisory.

Then the governor's prison secretary asked the board to approve his plan for hundreds of new beds. The Corrections Board balked, approving his plan only in small part and saying it needed more time on the rest. Members said they hadn't been consulted and that the prisons had insufficient staff for the inmate population already.

The governor's prison secretary said he'd do what he wanted anyway because the governor was his only boss. Griffin sided with the governor and her guy, based on the new state laws but not the constitutional amendment.

So, the board hired its own lawyer, and that lawyer and the board prevailed in the first couple of rounds in Pulaski County Circuit Court. That happened even as Griffin's office sued separately to say the prison board's outside lawyer was illegally hired because the attorney general is supposed to represent the board.

Pulaski Circuit Judge Tim Fox shot him down on that just Monday.

Imagine having your lawyer refuse to represent you, but your adversary, and that he then sues you because you hired somebody else, arguing you have no right to a lawyer. He said Sarah is the state and they work for her. Judge Fox scoffed at that.

In the meantime, the prison board fired the governor's prison secretary, and the governor hired him for her staff at $200,000-plus to run in place and take up space until she can get him put back in charge of the prisons.

It's good work if you can get it.

All of this will go eventually to an Arkansas Republican Supreme Court that is almost sure in the end to function as Sanders' kangaroo and vote at least 4 to 3 to let Sanders and her prison guy stack as many unattended inmates on each other as they choose.

The governor and the attorney general probably will get away with saying that the prison board can stick Amendment 33 somewhere not easily accessible.

That's the context in which Griffin got asked in the television interview over the weekend why he didn't agree with a prison board member who wrote an open letter explaining the board's predicament and calling for collaboration to address the policy issue at hand--prison beds.

Griffin said he liked collaboration and all, but that the governor didn't have to meet with lawbreakers.

Meantime, progress on finding more prison space, hiring more guards or otherwise reducing the prison population--meaning on the real job of government--has not lately been made.

John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at [email protected]. Read his @johnbrummett feed on X, formerly Twitter.

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