High court resignations trigger selection process
After a scandal in the '60s, nominations come from a nonpartisan commission.

Carmel Perez Snyder Modified: July 12, 2004 at 12:00 am •  Published: July 12, 2004
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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."

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