Bills would change how Oklahoma judges are chosen, retained


By Tim Talley - Associated Press



OKLAHOMA CITY — Lingering frustration with a series of state court decisions has prompted members of the Oklahoma Legislature to file a series of bills that would reshape how Oklahoma judges are selected and who is eligible to serve on the bench.

In recent years, state district and appellate courts have overturned several tough anti-abortion bills that were overwhelmingly approved by the Republican-controlled Legislature and signed into law by Republican Gov. Mary Fallin. The Oklahoma Supreme Court also overturned a sweeping rewrite of the state’s civil justice code championed by Republican legislative leaders, and other courts have overturned portions of new workers’ compensation guidelines approved by GOP lawmakers.

Supporters say the changes are needed to assure that the people have more say in who is eligible to serve on the bench and how they are chosen. But opponents say the measures would infringe on the independence of the judiciary and overlook the role of the state’s third branch of government as an impartial referee.

Judicial nominating commission

Currently, the 15-member Judicial Nominating Commission — which includes six lawyers and nine non-lawyers who serve without compensation — nominates candidates for appointment by the governor to fill vacancies on the Supreme Court, the Court of Criminal Appeals and the Court of Civil Appeals as well as district and other judgeships when a vacancy occurs. The appellate judges serve six-year terms and appear on retention ballots on a rotating basis.

The Judicial Nominating Commission was created by a vote of the people in 1967 following a scandal involving a retired Supreme Court justice and two sitting justices who were accused of taking bribes in exchange for their favorable consideration of cases before them.

The people’s court

The Senate Judiciary Committee has passed 10 measures that would redraw judicial district boundaries, limit judicial service and alter the way Oklahoma judges are selected and retained. They are currently pending on the Senate floor.

Senate Pro Tem Mike Schulz (R-Altus) said the measures “would shift the balance of power in the judicial appointment process in Oklahoma away from trial lawyers and back to the people.”

“It is a concern to keep the judiciary reflective of what the people are thinking and responsive to them,” Schulz said.

But a member of the committee, Sen. Kay Floyd (D-Oklahoma City) said a judge is supposed to be a neutral referee who analyzes the facts of a case and the applicable law to arrive at a just decision.

“That’s like saying a referee at a sporting event should make every one of his calls based on how a crowd reacts,” said Floyd, a former administrative law judge and special municipal court judge in Oklahoma City. “That’s not the way the judiciary works.”

Filling the bench

Among other things, the measures propose to alter the boundaries of districts from which judicial candidates are selected to make them more representative of current population trends and to change the Oklahoma Constitution to alter the way appellate courts are selected.

Measures proposed by the committee’s chairman, Sen. Anthony Sykes, R-Moore, call for a vote of the people to change the selected method for judges, including partisan elections and Senate confirmation of a gubernatorial judicial appointee similar to the federal system. Another measure by Sen. Nathan Dahm, R-Broken Arrow, calls for a vote of the people on whether to require 60 percent voter approval of judicial retention ballots.

But some committee members questioned whether the proposals would improve Oklahoma’s method of selecting judges. Sen. David Holt (R-Oklahoma City, said voters want less partisanship and more principal in their public officials.

“We have enough partisanship in the nation and in our state,” Holt said.

Judicial qualifications

Other measures by Sykes would require a district judge to have served as lead counsel in at least three jury trials before being elected or appointed to serve on the bench and require appellate and district judges to retire when their combined age and years of service equaled 80.

Floyd said mandatory retirement would force Oklahoma’s most experienced judges to step down when they were most effective.

“There’s been no reason given but for they just want to be able to get rid of the judges at a certain point in time,” she said.

“Why should they be told they have to leave the bench? Don’t you want somebody who’s got that kind of experience?”

frustration with a series of state court decisions has prompted members of the Oklahoma Legislature to file a series of bills that would reshape how Oklahoma judges are selected and who is eligible to serve on the bench.

In recent years, state courts have overturned several tough pro-life bills that were overwhelmingly approved by the Republican-controlled Legislature and signed into law by Republican Gov. Mary Fallin. The Oklahoma Supreme Court also overturned a sweeping rewrite of the state’s civil justice code.

Supporters say the changes are needed to assure that the people have more say in who is eligible to serve on the bench and how they are chosen. But opponents say they would infringe on the independence of the judiciary and overlook its role as an impartial referee.

By Tim Talley

Associated Press

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