State Question 752 modifies judicial selection, nomination process

By Patrick B. McGuigan

Published: 31-Aug-2010

NOTE: This is sixth in a series of articles on Oklahoma’s statewide measures.
CapitolBeatOK will be examining all the state questions on the November
ballot. Pat McGuigan is the author of “The Politics of Direct Democracy:
Case Studies in Popular Decision Making.” He was a featured speaker at
this year’s Global Forum on Direct Democracy.

One of the lower-profile issues going before voters this fall is State Question 752, which would allow Oklahomans to amend the state Constitution to modify the state’s judicial nominating process.

The proposed amendment would increase the membership of the Judicial Nominating Commission from 13 to 15 members.  Under the proposal, two new, at-large members would be added to the commission. Those two new members would be laymen, not attorneys (with the two new members appointed by the President Pro Tempore and the Speaker of the House, one appointment per legislative leader).

To reduce the appearance of possible undue influence, State Question 752 would also prevent any individual from serving on the Judicial Nominating Commission if that person has an immediate family member who has been admitted to practice law in Oklahoma or any other state.

To make the process more bipartisan, the proposed amendment also prohibits more than two of the three at-large members from belonging to the same political party.

Currently, when a state judicial vacancy occurs, the Judicial Nominating Commission selects nominees to serve as judges or justices. The commission often advances three to four names to the governor, who then must appoint one of the nominees.

Under the current system, the governor appoints six of the 13 existing members of the Judicial Nominating Commission. Those appointees cannot be lawyers and must include at least one member from each congressional district.

Another six members of the current commission are lawyers who are members of the Oklahoma Bar Association and selected by members of that organization, with at least one lawyer-member from each congressional district.

Currently, the 13th Commission member is an at-large member (who must also be a lawyer) selected by the other 12 members.

Critics felt that set-up placed too much control over the state judiciary in the hands of the legal profession, particularly the. Oklahoma Bar Association. Advocates of S.Q. 752 have said OBA has strong Democratic ties favoring judicial activists.

Supporters of State Question 752 argued that adding two more non-lawyer at-large appointees selected by the legislative branch will provide more accountability within the Judicial Nominating Commission. Additionally, the measure is seen as a way to give  non-attorneys a true voice in the selection and nomination process.

However, the effort to place the state question on the ballot was not easy.

Senate Joint Resolution 27, by state Sen. Patrick Anderson (an Enid Republican, and an attorney) and state Rep. Dan Sullivan (a Tulsa Republican, and an attorney), placed State Question 752 on the ballot.

The resolution encountered strong resistance that largely broke along party lines. As it moved through the Legislature, most Democrats opposed the measure and most Republicans supported it. In 2009, Senate Joint Resolution 27 passed by a narrow 51-34 vote in the state House, and a narrow 25-21 vote in the state Senate, receiving the bare majority required to pass in each chamber.

Now the issue is in the hands of the Oklahoma voters.