OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — For the first time since a bribery scandal rocked Oklahoma’s Supreme Court 50 years ago, state lawmakers are considering tinkering with the way Supreme Court justices and appellate court judges are selected.
Legislation pending in the state House would alter the method for choosing some members of the 15-member Judicial Nominating Commission, which nominates candidates to be selected by the governor to fill vacancies in the state’s highest courts.
Six members of the commission are attorneys and the rest are non-lawyers. Currently, the six attorneys are elected to seats on the commission by members of the Oklahoma Bar Association. But a measure passed by the House Rules Committee would allow the speaker of the state House to appoint three of the attorneys and the president pro tem of the Senate to appoint three.
Supporters of the proposal say the change would help restore a balance of power in the judicial selection process that they believe is missing between the state’s three branches of government.
“I think the balance of power is very much out of kilter,” said Sen. Clark Jolley, R-Edmond, author of the measure as well as others that proposed major changes in the way judicial vacancies are filled in the state’s appellate courts.
“I believe that Oklahoma’s system of selecting judges is too heavily weighted,” said Jolley, a candidate for the 5th Congressional District seat. “I thought the judicial branch was playing too much of a role in selecting themselves.”
But opponents say the bill is an attempt to reduce the judicial branch’s independence and inject politics into what is now a non-partisan judicial selection process.
“My team has grown weary with Republican attempts to meddle with the third branch of government,” said House Democratic leader Scott Inman of Oklahoma City. Inman said measures to exert more legislative control over the selection of appellate judges are an attempt by the Legislature’s Republican leadership to exert more political power.
“I’m deeply concerned that it’s an attempt to influence the third branch,” said Rep. Kay Floyd, D-Oklahoma City, who served as an administrative law judge for about 22 years. “The system’s working. The judges are doing their jobs.”
Renée DeMoss of Tulsa, president of the Oklahoma Bar Association, said the current judicial nominating system was created to make sure Oklahomans have fair and qualified judges who are free from political pressure.
“Any changes in the system we have now that would make it more political,” DeMoss said. “That injects politics into the system and creates the potential for judges to be subject to political influence.”
While sending the measure to the House floor for debate and a vote, the House Rules Committee did not consider two other judicial selection measures that are apparently dead for the 2014 legislative session.
One sought a vote of the people to authorize the governor, with the advice and consent of the Senate, to appoint the Supreme Court’s chief justice. The other sought a statewide vote to impose 20-year term limits on the state’s justices and appellate court judges.
Rep. Jason Murphey, R-Guthrie, House sponsor of the measures, said he believes term limits “are transformative for government at all levels.”
“As in any other elected capacity, the role played by members of the judiciary is that of service. It is not meant to be a career,” Murphey said.
But House Speaker Jeff Hickman, R-Fairview, said legislative leaders believed judicial term limits and the other proposals were unnecessary.
“There’s a lot of reasons these processes were put in place,” Hickman said.
The Judicial Nominating Commission was created in 1967 through voter-approved constitutional amendments that abolished partisan elections for the judges and adopted a merit selection system that would nominate qualified judges who are not corrupted by political influence.
They were proposed following a bribery scandal that became public in 1964 involving a retired Supreme Court justice and two sitting justices who were accused of taking bribes in exchange for their favorable consideration of cases before them.
The retired justice testified under oath that he had taken bribes continuously from 1938 to 1959 from an Oklahoma City attorney in return for his vote in deciding certain cases appealed to the high court. He also implicated the two sitting justices and claimed that bribes were used to help with election campaign expenses.
Proposals to again modify the selection process for Supreme Court and appellate judges emerged last year following Supreme Court decisions that struck down legislative initiatives supported by the Legislature’s Republican majority, including a civil justice reform measure supporters said was needed to reduce medical malpractice and product liability costs in the state.
In a 7-2 decision, justices ruled the law was unconstitutional because it violated the single-subject rule in the Oklahoma Constitution. The majority opinion said the legislation amounted to logrolling, or the passing of legislation that contains multiple subjects.
DeMoss said disenchantment with the court’s decisions is likely motivated the legislation.
“Any time you have a court decision…people are likely to be unhappy,” she said. “There’s a struggle between the different branches of government, and often when there is unhappiness, it lands at the feet of the court.”
“At the end of the day, they need to pass bills that are constitutional,” Inman said.
Michael D. Evans, director of the Administrative Office of the Courts, said disagreement with the high court’s interpretation of the law does not justify altering the way the court’s judges are selected. More than 30 other states select their appellate judges in a similar way, he said.
“I don’t see a need of judicial reform along the lines of what has been proposed,” Evans said. “I didn’t think they were necessary.”
“This has really worked well for us. The shame of the 60’s has gone away,” he said. “It’s not broke. Why try to mess with it?”