By Austin J. Keeney
In the words of Spanish philosopher George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Of late, there has been much debate regarding certain legislation which has either passed or is pending before the Oklahoma House of Representatives that would jeopardize the integrity and independence of our state’s judicial system. More specifically, HB3162, HJR1037 and HJR1042 would, if allowed to become law, either severely cripple or completely abolish the Judicial Nominating Commission (JNC) thereby opening the door for big money and special interest groups to control the nomination and appointment of judges at every level of the Oklahoma judicial system. Such a shift in public policy would have a significant and serious impact on each and every one of us that call Oklahoma home.
In order to truly comprehend the gravity of these proposed actions, we must first understand the evolution of the judicial selection process in Oklahoma. For decades, Oklahomans favored direct, partisan election of justices of the peace, local and county judges, and members of the state’s co-existing appellate courts: the Supreme Court and the Court of Criminal Appeals. But then, due in large part to the Supreme Court bribery scandal of the early 1960s, Oklahoma underwent sweeping judicial reform including the formation and implementation of the Judicial Nominating Commission in 1969. Developed as a means of removing the partisan influence from the judicial selection process, the JNC was tasked with nominating candidates for appointment by the Governor to fill vacancies on the Supreme Court, the Court of Criminal Appeals, the Court of Appeals, District and Associate District Judgeships, and the Workers’ Compensation Court. The JNC also has jurisdiction to determine whether nominees have met the qualifications to hold judicial office.
Since shifting to the non-partisan, merit based JNC system, 307 trial and appellate judges nominated by the JNC have been appointed by the Governor’s office. While a few resigned when requested to do so, only one judge has been removed from office due to mental health issues. Most importantly, no scandal has touched members of either of the state’s two highest courts in the near half-century since reform and the implementation of the JNC. This positive and effective reform would be undone if the aforementioned proposed legislation becomes law. While each proposed bill has its own intricacies and nuances, the outcome would essentially be the same: the judicial selection process would be taken out of the hands of the JNC and returned to the partisan-based roots which opened the door to untold corruption nearly 50 years ago.
Shortly before the publishing of this article, the Oklahoma House of Representatives approved HB3162; as such, this issue will be presented to voters in the November, 2016 elections. On behalf of those of us at Gungoll, Jackson, Box & Devoll, P.C., I urge you to VOTE NO on HB3162 in November and would further implore you to contact your Representative and ask them to reject the proposed legislation in HJR1037 and HJR1042. You can find contact information for your Representative here: http://www.okhouse.gov/Members/Default.aspx
We cannot allow history to repeat itself.