It’s silly season in the Oklahoma Legislature. One of the silliest ideas is to put politicians in charge of the commission that nominates Oklahoma judges. Lawmakers are threatening to abolish the commission and freeze judicial salaries if they don’t get their way. The legislature hopes you won’t notice what they are doing with Senate Joint Resolution 21 (SJR21) and House Joint Resolution 1096 (HJR1096). Please let them know you are paying attention.
The integrity of Oklahoma’s Judicial Nominating Commission (JNC) is at risk. The JNC has operated without incident for decades. Scandals rocked Oklahoma’s court system in the 1960’s. Judges took bribes in exchange for favorable rulings. Partisan elections politicized the judicial selection process. Judicial reforms of the 1960’s, including the JNC, insulated the court system from politics, and restored confidence in Oklahoma’s judiciary.
HOW IT WORKS NOW
The JNC has 15 members. The governor appoints 6 non-attorneys to the JNC from different districts in the state. The Oklahoma Bar Association elects 6 attorneys from those districts. The Governor, Speaker of the House and Senate President each pick one at-large member of the JNC. The current commission provides for geographic and political balance. When a judicial vacancy occurs, the JNC reviews applications and submits three nominees to the Governor. The Governor selects one nominee to serve as judge.
A BAD PROPOSAL
SJR21 eliminates attorney involvement in selecting the attorney members of the JNC. The House Speaker, Senate President and Governor would instead be in charge of appointing all 15 JNC members. SJR21 reinserts politics into the judicial selection process.
Oklahoma’s business community hopes to use its influence in the legislature to cause the selection of “pro-business” judges. But Oklahoma judges are not “anti-business.” The judicial branch is an independent, impartial, co-equal branch of state government. There is no valid reason to mess with the process of qualifying and selecting judges.
The legislature hopes to increase it’s power by influencing who gets appointed to district court and appellate judgeships in Oklahoma. The legislature already sets the court budget. They don’t need to hand-pick judges with the Chamber of Commerce whispering in their ear. SJR21 and HJR1096 will make it harder for qualified and impartial judges to take the bench and stay there.
To get their way, legislative leaders are threatening to abolish the JNC, and freeze judicial salaries. Putting the “nuclear option” on the table is supposed to make SJR21 look like a compromise. To show they are serious, house leaders introduced HJR1096, which abolishes a pay raise for state court judges, who have not had a raise in six years. The Board of Judicial Compensation, an independent committee created by the legislature to make judicial salary recommendations, proposed the pay hike.
Please let your local state senator and representative know that SJR21 and HJR1096 harm Oklahoma’s ability to provide fair and impartial courts for all Oklahomans. Here is a link to find your representatives in Oklahoma’s legislature.
by David A. Tracy
UPDATE APRIL 15, 2014: You can now sign an online petition opposing SJR21. Don’t feel obligated to donate to ipetitions when asked. Just close the donation request page. Here is the link to the petition.
Signing the petition is quick and easy, but does not substitute for direct contact with your state representative or senator. Please do both.