CORRECTION: Harry Rouse was not a justice on the Oklahoma Supreme Court. Rouse was appointed to a two-year term as a judge on the state Industrial Court. When Rouse's term expired, Gov. Henry Bellmon did not reappoint him. Bellmon's decision to not reappoint Rouse was not related to the Supreme Court scandal. Also, Rouse was not charged with a crime. (Information provided by Harry V. Rouse IV, 02/07/2013)
Conflict in Vietnam and civil rights marches were in the headlines when Gov. Henry Bellmon appointed Ralph Hodges to the state Supreme Court.
Also in the headlines in April 1965 was a scandal that rocked the foundation of Oklahoma's highest court.
"I felt a lot of pressure. I think all of us did," Hodges said last week after announcing his retirement after 39 years on the court. "We knew things had to be different."
Hodges' retirement came one day after Justice Daniel J. Boudreau resigned to take a teaching position at the University of Tulsa College of Law after only five years on the court.
The departures once again are shining a light on the way Oklahoma selects its Supreme Court judges and the changes caused by the scandal nearly four decades ago.
Providing favorable rulings for money In 1964, retired Supreme Court Justice Nelson Smith Corn confessed to a 20-year agreement with one lawyer to exchange favorable court rulings for money. He implicated two others Justices Earl Welch and N.B. Johnson.
In 1965, Johnson was impeached by the Legislature, and Welch resigned after impeachment proceedings began against him. Bellmon asked Justice Harry Rouse to retire after allegations surfaced that Rouse had evaded federal income taxes.
Corn, Welch and Johnson were convicted of criminal charges. Hodges was named to replace Welch.
The scandal led to the appointment process, nonpartisan elections for district judges and retention ballots that the state uses today.
Judicial Nominating Commission created Pushed by former state Sen. Tony Massad, former Gov. Dewey Bartlett and a vote of the people, the Judicial Nominating Commission was created, changing the political election of the Supreme Court in Oklahoma.
The 13-member commission is composed of six attorneys elected by bar association members in their districts; six lay members, or non-attorneys three Democrats and three Republicans appointed by the governor and one at-large lay member elected by the other commission members. The lay members and attorneys represent each of the six congressional districts that were in existence before the 2002 elections.
The result was nonpolitical appointments.
"I don't think that the system is conducive to pure partisan politics," Vice Chief Justice Marian Opala said. "But we do know that politics can enter into the process even as it is."
Unlike the president, Oklahoma governors don't have control over the nominees. They cannot suggest specific nominees or applicants to the nominating commission.
"The intent of this system was that the governor have some influence, but not complete dominating authority," former Gov. George Nigh said. "A governor's hands are tied when it comes to selecting the nominees."
Nigh appointed Alma Wilson, the first woman named to the Supreme Court, and the second woman, current Justice Yvonne Kauger.
"I'm proud that I was able to appoint the first woman, but I'm also proud because she was the most qualified nominee," Nigh said, adding that unlike the president, a governor cannot set out to find a woman or a minority judge.
Appointments pending for governor Still, it's likely current Gov. Brad Henry will have an impact on the court.
Henry appointed Justice James Edmondson in December 2003, when Justice Hardy Summers, who was appointed by former Gov. George Nigh, retired. This week, Boudreau announced his resignation and Hodges announced his retirement.
Henry could possibly make more appointments to the high court before his term ends, particularly if he is elected to a second term. Two other justices have served the court since the early 1960s, though both say they have no plans to retire anytime soon.
Justice Robert E. Lavender was appointed in 1965 by Bellmon. Opala, appointed in 1978 by then-Gov. David Boren, first served the court as a referee from 1960 to 1965.
Nigh said a governor also doesn't have full power to get his friends on the nominating commission, because he only appoints half of the group.
Henry has appointed two of the six lay members, Richard Dunning of Oklahoma City and Laura Gallagher of Ardmore. Both are serving terms that expire Oct. 5, 2009.
The other lay members: Frieda Peters of Stillwater, Fred Fitch of Lawton, Robert Yaffe of Muskogee and James Dunn of Tulsa were appointed by Keating. Peters' and Fitch's terms expire in October 2005, and Yaffe's and Dunn's terms expire October 2007.
Justice resignations are unusual Attorneys on the commission are Louis Levy of Tulsa and Deborah Reheard of Eufaula, whose terms expire October 2005; Pat Phelps of Durant and William Woodson of Norman, October 2007; and Robert C. Margo of Oklahoma City and Glenn A. Devoll of Enid, October 2009. The at-large member is Loise Butler Washington of McAlester, whose term expires October 2005.
Opala said a governor's influence is limited because justices often serve many years longer than the governor's two-term limit. Resignations such as that of Boudreau, who only served five years, are unusual, Opala said.
"We tend to serve for the rest of our productive professional life span," said Opala, who at 83 said he still loves the job and plans to continue to work for many more years.
Despite the upcoming changes, and the changes of the last four decades, Opala said it will take another generation at least to erase the memory of the scandal that shook the court in the 1960s.
"We have shaken it off, but not entirely," Opala said. "That reputation of yesteryear is still there. But the court is strong, and will survive the political influences that rise from time to time."Archive ID: 1939388