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Proposal could change how Oklahoma's higher-court judges are selected

Oklahoma State Capitol
Posted at 9:34 PM, Apr 15, 2024
and last updated 2024-04-16 10:52:27-04

TULSA, Okla. — For decades, the Oklahoma Judicial Nominating Commission has played a major role in sending judges to the state's higher courts.

Oklahoma Senate Joint Resolution 34 proposes eliminating the commission and transferring all power to the Governor.

It’s a question of independence or accountability.

"As much as we would love for our judges to be completely independent of political forces, the fact is they’re simply not," Owasso political scientist Dr. Travis Taylor said.

Dr. Eve Ringsmuth, associate professor at OSU, studies the judiciary.

"The idea [of the commission] is really to focus on the merit and the qualifications of these individuals," Ringsmuth said.

About fifty years ago, Oklahoma lawmakers chose independence over political accountability. In 1963, an Oklahoma Supreme Court Justice admitted that he and two others took bribes worth about $150,000 —about $1.5 million today. Thus, the judicial nominating commission was born.

"It’s designed to do a little bit of the leg work for the state of Oklahoma, for our citizens, in advance," Ringsmuth said.

A board made up of lawyers, business, and community leaders examines a potential judge’s background. They send the governor a list of three names to choose from.

Oklahoma’s judicial selection process is nuanced, and there are a lot of cooks in the kitchen. After the committee gives the governor three names, the governor chooses the final person for the job. Then, it’s up to the Oklahoma voters to retain or fire these judges every six years.

Research shows more than 90% of judges across the country retain their offices. SJR 34 would keep those elections but eliminate the judicial nominating commission, putting it all in the governor’s hands.

"I’m the one that’s elected by Oklahomans," Gov. Stitt said at an April 12 press conference, "And the next governor’s gonna be elected by Oklahomans. Why do we tie the governor’s hands behind his back and create all these boards and commissions and unelected bureaucrats?"
Taylor thinks the proposal puts more power in the hands of Oklahoma’s voters.

"The JNC, as its currently constructed, just doesn’t provide the accountability mechanism for the courts," Taylor said.

Miles Pringle, President of the Oklahoma Bar Association, disagrees, saying the following:

"Oklahoma’s current method of judicial selection involving the judicial nominating commission is the most transparent, efficient and cost-effective method of choosing highly qualified and independent judges and justices to serve our state. Justice for all requires an impartial and unbiased judiciary that is free from political influence. The OBA stands firm in its belief that the JNC is the best model for accomplishing those aims."

If the resolution passes the legislature, it will be up to Oklahoma's voters to keep things the same or scrap the commission by way of a state question.

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