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Rift between Griffin and Taylor over district court expands

Article by Gary Bridgman
White River Now News Director

The rift between Independence County District Court Judge Chaney Taylor (pictured left) and County Judge Robert Griffin (right) and the Independence County Quorum Court has expanded and, in its wake, brought serious allegations.

The disagreement began over the quorum court approving the district court’s budget during the budgeting process for the county’s 2021 budget. (Click here for more on this story.)

Judge Griffin and the quorum court then came back and said it would be necessary to deny the addition of a “new” clerk for the district court. Griffin and the court wanted that money, they said, to give law enforcement a raise in pay. The question then became: When looking for money to do the law enforcement raise, why come back and deny the district court a new clerk position?

During one meeting over the issue, a quorum court member indicated the quorum court felt the district court is overstaffed, and a new clerk was not needed. Judge Griffin said the quorum court could not approve the addition anyway, noting County Attorney Daniel Haney researched the matter and found that state law says the City of Batesville is to approve the hiring of that individual.

Due to a shortfall in anticipated revenues from the district court caused by the diversion of substantial revenues to the City of Batesville that have for years been paid to the county, Griffin said it was then necessary to have a county budget committee meeting before the next quorum court meeting.

Griffin also said he has a letter from Judge Taylor diverting those funds. The letter is dated March 12, but it was received April 12 by the County Treasurer Bob Treadway, according to the county judge. Griffin said he will give budget committee members a copy of a letter from him requesting Judge Taylor return those funds to the county.

The county judge also said he would be including a letter from Treadway dated April 28, 2021, regarding an anticipated shortfall of revenues. He said the quorum court will need to make a substantial revision of the budget for district court. In his comments, Judge Griffin said he will be presenting a revised district court budget to the quorum court at the next meeting on May 17.

Judge Griffin, in his written comments to be made before the May 17 quorum court meeting (see the comments below this story), said District Judge Chaney Taylor is violating the separation of powers set forth in the U.S. Constitution. Griffin said it is proper for the Independence County Circuit Court to review the matter and make a determination, but not the district judge and certainly not in “a unilateral manner devoid of due process,” the judge writes.

Griffin went on to say that by taking away anticipated revenues from a budget approved by the quorum court — which is the legislative branch and charged with approving or revising budgets submitted to them by various departments, including the district court — and by sending those revenues to the City of Batesville seems to be breaching the separation of powers. As such, Griffin said the move appears to be an act of judicial overreach, and in his mind, appears to be a misappropriation of funds.

The county judge said he has afforded Judge Taylor the opportunity to reverse course on the previously described diversion of funds to the City of Batesville, but according to Griffin, Judge Taylor has not done so to date. Therefore, Griffin said the quorum court must do its duty and revise the district court’s budget to account for the anticipated shortfall, and to prevent breaking the law by spending into a deficit.

A look at the revised budget proposal from Judge Griffin shows that four deputy clerk positions and a court bailiff position will not be funded after May 31, 2021. If the budget revision is approved by the quorum court on May 17, it will effectively cut the district court budget by over $165,000, according to Treadway, as well as cut the employment of those five persons who work for the Independence County District Court.

In a Tuesday reply to the media, Taylor said the clerk position in question is not “new,” and stressed this situation needs to be resolved.

“By threatening to essentially defund the [district] court, the county judge is also placing the administration of justice in Independence County in jeopardy and in doing so, allow offenders to not be held accountable for their unlawful actions.”

Judge Taylor’s reply from Tuesday is posted below Judge Griffin’s letter that will be distributed at the May 17 county budget committee.

FROM INDEPENDENCE COUNTY JUDGE ROBERT GRIFFIN

A meeting of the Budget Committee, prior to the QC meeting, will be necessary due to the shortfall in anticipated revenues from the District Court, caused by the diversion of substantial revenues (that have, for years, been paid to the County) to the City of Batesville. I have attached the letter from Judge Taylor diverting those funds (dated March 12th but received April 12th by the Treasurer), along with my letter on April 16th, requesting the return of those funds. Also attached is the Treasurer’s letter on April 29th regarding an anticipated shortfall of revenues, which necessitated a substantial revision of the budget for District Court. We will have a new budget proposal for the QC meeting from the County Clerk, accounting for all necessary cuts caused by Judge Taylor’s diversion of County revenues to the City of Batesville.

The Constitution sets forth a separation of powers between the different branches of government. No branch has the unilateral power to impose its will upon the other branches. Judge Taylor’s lawsuit, purportedly filed on behalf of the Court with Judge Taylor serving as counsel, is apparently based on my exercise of authority over the County’s budget (on advice of counsel), namely, that hiring a clerk by the county was improper (Arkansas law requires approval of such a hire to be made by the City Council). If I allow an unlawful act, I will, at the very least, be cited by Legislative Audit. It is no different than an improper claim being paid in the budget appropriated by the QC. It is proper for the Circuit Court to review this and make a determination in the normal judicial course (i.e., with jurisdiction), but not the District Judge and certainly not in a unilateral manner devoid of due process.

By taking away anticipated revenues from a budget approved by the QC, the legislative branch, and sending those to the City of Batesville, Judge Taylor, respectfully, appears to be breaching the separation of powers. There has been no due process and no order from a court of competent jurisdiction (Judge Taylor certainly cannot hear such a case due to his own conflicts of interests, which he presumably realized by filing suit in another court). This appears, again with all respect, to be an action of judicial overreach. In my opinion, it appears to be a misappropriation of funds. Notably, the recent diversion of funds to the City by Judge Taylor runs contrary to his own previous affidavit and the previously stated positions of the City of Batesville and the AML, all stating that the District Court is a county only district court (i.e., that all revenues from the Court would flow back to the County, as they have for years).

The County has a statutory requirement to fund half of half of the District Judge’s salary (this is sent to the State), as set forth by ACA 16-17-1106 (b)(1)(A), and half of the Chief Clerk’s salary Clerk as set forth by ACA 16-17-115 (a). The County has no obligation to fund any other personnel, utilities or other expenses. It would not be fair to cut any other office in County General, such as the Sheriff or Jail, which would almost certainly require terminating the employment of one or more county employees, when the shortfall in the District Court is entirely owing to the unilateral and improper diversion of revenues to the City. It is the core of the QC’s responsibility to appropriate, or not, funding for County operations in every department of the County; budgets can be revised (so long as legal obligations are satisfied, as with the half funding of the Judge’s and Clerk’s salaries in this case) at the discretion of the QC, who cannot, as a matter of law, spend to a deficit. As such, I would ask the Court to revise the County’s budget for the District Court to meet all statutory obligations and to account for the anticipated shortfall caused by the diversion of revenues to the City.

As can be seen from the attached letters, I have afforded Judge Taylor the opportunity to reverse course on the above-described diversion of funds to the City, but he has not done so to date. The Court must, therefore, do its duty and revise the District Court’s budget to account for the anticipated shortfall and to prevent breaking the law by spending into a deficit. Thank you.

Robert

FROM INDEPENDENCE COUNTY DISTRICT JUDGE CHANEY TAYLOR

 


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