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Group releases rating system of Oklahoma's justices

The report, prepared by a group backed by The State Chamber, scores justices on their votes on civil liability cases. A former judge calls the findings inappropriate but one state justice who is up for retention in this fall's election says he welcomes the scrutiny.
BY MICHAEL MCNUTT mmcnutt@opubco.com Published: September 27, 2012
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The council's report on the Supreme Court showed Chief Justice Steven Taylor and Justice James Winchester receiving the highest score, or ruling against expanding liabilities, at 69 percent. Also, Justice James Edmondson, 32 percent; Justice Yvonne Kauger, 31 percent; Justice John Reif, 30 percent; Justice Joseph Watt, 26 percent; and Vice Chief Justice Tom Colbert, 21 percent.

Justices Douglas Combs and Noma Gurich received provisional scores because they were appointed within the past two years and have participated in fewer cases. The report looked at 145 cases going back several years; Combs and Gurich participated in about 25.

Combs and Gurich, who along with Edmondson and Kauger are up for retention this year, were given provisional scores of 22 percent and 32 percent, respectively.

The findings, prepared by the Judicial Evaluation Institute for Economic Issues, focused on split decisions. Each justice was evaluated on decisions based in six broad areas of law: employment, insurance, medical malpractice, other liability lawsuits, product liability and workers' compensation, said Neil Coughlan, president of the Washington, D.C.-based organization.

“Our issue is civil liability, so we pay no attention — have no interest — in social issues, in criminal law and a host of other areas of law,” he said.

Coughlan, whose firm has performed similar evaluations over 16 years, said the cases chosen for evaluation will show whether a justice's ruling either slows or accelerates the spread of liability in the law. Reviewing at least 100 cases over several years will reveal a pattern, he said.

“We then make our own opinion as to which side of the decision is the more likely to inhibit the expansion of civil liability and we mark that with a plus,” he said.

Edmondson said he welcomed the scrutiny.

“I thought it was fairly presented,” he said. “It's a good idea to get information out there for the citizenry, especially for the people who plan on voting. It's a well-presented and well-balanced exposition of the matters that seem to be of concern to them and probably many others.”

Edmondson, on the high court since 2004, said he doesn't think the report's aim is to intimidate the judiciary.

“I suppose people are at liberty to use it for whatever purpose they deem fit,” Edmondson said. “It's not something that particularly worries me or any other justice that I know about. It kind of goes with the turf.”