A plan to rate judges is drawing fire from some attorneys who claim public dissemination of information somehow poisons the system.
The State Chamber and its partner organizations in Oklahoma City and Tulsa plan to launch an Oklahoma Civil Justice Council that will sponsor a zero-to-100 rating system for judges on the Court of Civil Appeals and Oklahoma Supreme Court. Ratings will be based upon whether a judge on a retention ballot supports the expansion of liabilities and expansion of existing law, preferring those who limit both.
Attorney Clark Brewster is among those decrying the ranking system as an effort to bully the judiciary. That's a bit much considering that one of the biggest complaints about judicial elections is that the campaigns are largely funded by lawyers who will appear before the judges they financially support. In a 2010 race, district judge candidate Kent Eldridge raised around 85 percent of campaign funds from attorneys, with more than two-thirds coming from lawyers who had practiced before him on the Workers' Compensation Court. Eldridge fell short in that race.
But when judges refuse attorney funding, they face the possibility of drawing a challenger and being outspent. The late Oklahoma County District Judge Twyla Mason Gray refused to accept campaign contributions from attorneys, saying it led to an appearance of favoritism. Perhaps that's why her 2010 opponent, lawyer Paul Faulk, told The Oklahoman he decided to run against Gray because she “doesn't treat people with respect — particularly attorneys.”
Even if attorneys' financial contributions to judges weren't an issue, under the current system lawyers tend to have the most information on how judges perform, yet all citizens are expected to vote.
The chambers' plan would give non-lawyers at least some information before casting a ballot. The rating plan is an informational campaign, just like any other in politics. Is there bias in the chambers' rating system? Sure. Just like there's bias in any report evaluating lawmakers. And just like there's bias in campaign contributions: Attorneys and businesses don't give money equally to all candidates in all races.
Furthermore, citizens who don't agree with the chambers' agenda are free to ignore their rankings — or even determine candidate selection based on who the chambers rank as being the worst.
Too often, Oklahoma citizens must vote on judicial races in an information vacuum. The chambers' efforts would fill part of that void. We hope the information provided is relevant, credible and in context. The chambers' ratings system must be a serious and deliberative effort that doesn't criticize judges for merely upholding the law as it's written. Otherwise, they shouldn't bother with the project.
Whether the public is better served by having direct election of judges instead of making them appointees is a debate worth having. But to claim judicial bullying is under way just because a group wants to increase public awareness during campaign season is nonsense.