Oklahoma Supreme Court to decide eligibility of new justice

By Tim Talley - The Associated Press

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — An attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union Wednesday attacked the residency of Oklahoma’s newest Supreme Court justice, arguing before a referee for the court that Justice Patrick Wyrick does not live in the southeastern Oklahoma district where he claims to reside.

“There is a wrong here. There is a public interest wrong,” Brady Henderson, the ACLU’s legal director, said while outlining the basis for a lawsuit filed by two southeastern Oklahoma residents who have challenged Wyrick’s appointment last month by Gov. Mary Fallin.

“This is something that, by its nature, tests the integrity of the judiciary, tests the public trust,” Henderson said.

But Special Assistant Attorney General Neal Leader argued that the state’s Judicial Nominating Commission, which nominated Wyrick and two other candidates for the vacant Supreme Court seat, is solely responsible for determining whether applicants for judicial posts meet the qualifications to hold office and its decisions are non-reviewable.

“The game was over when the Judicial Nominating Commission made its decision,” Leader said. “Under the constitution, no one can step into the shoes of the commission. And no one is empowered to review or undo the commission’s decision.”

Supreme Court Referee Barbara Swimley said she will prepare a report about the case for the court, which will make a final determination. It was not immediately clear when the court might hand down a decision.

The lawsuit filed by southeastern Oklahoma residents Susan Spencer and Cheri Chandler alleges Wyrick, former solicitor general for the Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office, does not meet the state Constitution’s requirement that justices be a “qualified elector,” meaning they are eligible to register to vote, in the district they are chosen from for at least a year prior to their appointment.

The Supreme Court’s nine justices are chosen from nine separate districts throughout the state to assure each part of the state is represented on the court and to increase diversity among justices.

Wyrick submitted documents to the Judicial Nominating Commission claiming he is a resident of Atoka in southeastern Oklahoma and has lived there “since birth,” Henderson said. But the same documents list other residences for Wyrick and indicate he has been a resident of the Oklahoma City area when he claims to have been a resident of Atoka.

“That’s not possible,” Henderson said. “I can’t have two at the same time. Justice Wyrick is not a bona fide resident of Atoka.”

But Leader said the lawsuit is frivolous and that the Judicial Nominating Commission “did its job.” The agency nominated Wyrick only after an extensive investigation of the applications of each candidate, including background checks by the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, he said.

“Justice Wyrick lived most of his life in Atoka,” Leader said. He said Wyrick has operated businesses in the region and owns a home there.

“Those of us who know Patrick know that Atoka and the country around it is branded into his heart and soul,” Leader said. “The decision of the commission was well-founded — and, it’s not reviewable.”

Henderson countered that the Constitution does not grant all-powerful status to any agency and that the Supreme Court can review its decisions.

By Tim Talley

The Associated Press

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