COMMENTARY: Judicial Reform? Keep Selection Over Election

In 2014, The Oklahoma Academy annual Town Hall focused on Oklahoma’s Health, and throughout the three-day session a common phrase was often heard: “At least we aren’t as unhealthy as Mississippi.” The 2015 Town Hall focused on the Oklahoma budget, and again, a phrase heard throughout the Town Hall conference was, “at least we aren’t as broke as Kansas.” When did we, as a state, become complacent with almost last?

When did we become okay with Oklahoma being “okay?” Now I am concerned that if H.B. 3162 passes, I will start hearing “at least we aren’t as corrupt as Louisiana.”

The passage of this bill, and measures like it, will undo years of damage control that we sought to correct from the 1960s scandals that first brought to light what happens when Oklahoma’s highest court can be bought. The correction to end the judicial scandals of the 60s entailed moving from an election process to a selection process.

Oklahoma’s court system is unique in that, unlike most states, Oklahoma has two courts of last resort — the Oklahoma Supreme Court, which determines all issues of civil nature, and the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals which decides all criminal matters. Members of these courts are appointed by the Governor from a list of three names submitted by the Oklahoma Judicial Nominating Commission (JNC).

The JNC was established as a part of the Judicial Department in 1967 by an amendment to the Oklahoma Constitution under Governor Henry Bellmon, during his first term as Governor. The Commission is composed of 15 members, six non-lawyers appointed by the Governor, six attorneys who are elected by the lawyers in their congressional district, and three at-large members – one selected by the Speaker of the House of Representatives, one selected by the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, and one selected by at least eight members of the Commission.

Of the six non-lawyers appointed by the Governor, which shall include at least one from each congressional district, none have been admitted to practice law in Oklahoma or have any immediate family member who has been admitted to the practice of law in the State of Oklahoma or any other state. Of those Commissioners named by the Governor, not more than three shall belong to any one political party.

The Oklahoma Constitution limits the number of members who belong to any one political party, and members cannot hold any public office by election or appointment, or an official position in a political party. The JNC was designed to be free from party influence. In the 1960s, several Oklahoma Supreme Court justices were removed from office due to taking kickbacks and bribes for favorable court rulings and decisions. This in turn caused the federal government to come to Oklahoma to clean up the corruption scandal which led to the movement in Judicial Reform.

Now, 33 states use the merit selection process, rather than the election process. Passing H.B. 3162 would take Oklahoma back to the election process. The State of Oklahoma literally and figuratively cannot afford having our Judges being bought for political favors.

Governor Henry Bellmon founded The Oklahoma Academy in 1966-67 to bring public attention to such policy issues and provide objective, thorough research. In 1987, the Oklahoma Academy conference focus was on The Future of Oklahoma, and one of the key recommendations from that Conference, referenced by the Hudson Institute, was that Oklahoma should immediately create a Constitutional Commission which would consist of 11 members, including the Chief Justice of the Oklahoma Supreme Court, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the President Pro Tem of the Senate, the Governor, both U.S. Senators from Oklahoma, and three eminent Oklahomans from the private sector. All are to be selected by the same method as employed in selecting judges for the Oklahoma Supreme Court – by nomination, not election.

Oklahoma is a great state with the potential of being even better. Oklahomans are wonderful people. Let’s not forget our history of judicial scandal. Let’s ensure our judicial scandals of the past remain in the past! Consider a NO vote on House Bill 3162.

Let’s keep selection over election.

NOTE: Julie Knutson is President/CEO at The Oklahoma Academy for State Goals, based in Norman.