MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

October 31, 2013

Lawmakers study judicial selection methods


Associated Press

— OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Frustrated with a recent Oklahoma Supreme Court decision that struck down civil justice reform legislation, state lawmakers launched a study Thursday into how members of the state’s highest court and appellate courts are chosen and how long they should serve.

But proponents of replacing Oklahoma’s method for selecting justices and appeals court judges were opposed by former members of the state Judicial Nominating Commission and others who said Oklahoma’s merit selection and ballot retention method is an effective way to choose fair and impartial judges while keeping politics out of the process.

“I think the system is darn good and not broken,” said Lawton Mayor Fred Fitch, a former member of the JNC.

The 15-member JNC, which includes six lawyers and nine nonlawyers, 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. The judges serve six-year terms and appear on retention ballots on a rotating basis.

Michael Evans, the administrative director of the state’s courts, said Oklahoma’s process for selecting Supreme Court and appellate court judges has been in place since 1967 and is similar to processes in other states. Similar selection methods are used in more than 30 other states, according to testimony before the House Judiciary Committee.

“We need to be sure that we have fair and impartial judges,” Evans said. “The process works.”

The study was requested by House Speaker T.W. Shannon, R-Lawton, who said he wanted to make sure that the system of state government checks and balances created by the state Constitution is working. Shannon said the judiciary is a vital part of state government and is potentially the most powerful.

“It is important that the judicial branch does not undo the will of voters,” he said.

Shannon requested the study in June just three days after the state Supreme Court struck down a 2009 lawsuit reform law that was a priority for Republican legislative leaders.

The high court said the law was unconstitutional because it contained multiple subjects in violation of the state Constitution’s rule that requires legislation to cover just one subject. The Legislature approved individual bills that reinstated the law in a special session in September.

“I believe the Oklahoma Supreme Court has acted at times as a ‘Super Legislature’,” Shannon said after the hearing. “It is my opinion the court has attempted to derail laws and reforms that are not only constitutional, but benefit our great state and provide greater opportunity and freedom for our citizens.”

Carrie Severino, chief counsel and policy director of the Judicial Crisis Network, a Washington, D.C, lawsuit reform think tank, said the system places too much control in the selection of judges in a group of people who lack accountability.

The lawyer members are elected by lawyers; the other members are appointed by various state officials.

Severino suggested lawmakers consider the federal system, in which a candidate is nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate, or be elected through political campaigns.

But others said requiring judges to raise and spend campaign money would force them to decide cases involving contributors and could lead to scandals similar to one in the 1960s in which state Supreme Court justices were accused of accepting bribes and fixing decisions.