Most Oklahomans will find themselves in court at least once in their life. When that happens, they have the right to a fair hearing by impartial judges. Our system of government depends on it. Oklahomans must be able to trust that the justice or judge hearing their cases isn't inclined to rule a particular way because of pressure or influence from outside groups.
Justices and judges are like referees in sports — they must be neutral officials when deciding a case. In court, the rules of the game are the Constitution, case law and existing state laws. Fair and impartial judges apply the rules honestly and equally.
In Oklahoma, the Judicial Nominating Commission (JNC) interviews and investigates candidates for seats on the state Supreme Court and the courts of criminal and civil appeals. The JNC is bipartisan by design and made up of six attorneys and nine non-attorneys. The governor selects the justice or judge from three qualified applicants recommended by the JNC. The retention election allows Oklahomans to vote whether to retain the justice or judge for six-year terms of office.
Oklahoma is unlike other states where judicial candidates must raise millions of dollars to finance an election campaign. Our system ensures Oklahoma justices and appeals court judges don't owe a debt of gratitude to any special-interest group. Our justices and judges apply the Constitution and the law fairly and impartially without bias or fear of retaliation.
Since 2000, the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan public policy and law institute that focuses on democracy and justice, has examined the sponsorship, content and costs of televised state supreme court election campaign advertising. These studies document the growing threats to fair and impartial courts from big money, special-interest pressure and television air wars.
Voters should be cautious when reviewing information or evaluations provided by special-interest groups or organizations created with the primary intent of promoting an agenda. The Oklahoma Bar Association empowers voters to make their own decision by providing nonpartisan, nonpolitical information. Indepen-dent justices and judges are critical to the success of a strong and well-functioning democracy that makes Oklahoma a better place to live, work and raise a family.
To help voters understand these critical issues, the OBA has created a website (www.CourtFacts.org) that explains judicial selection and retention. It contains biographical information on each of the justices and judges on the retention ballot and provides links to appellate court case opinions. It presents the facts — all the facts — so voters can make up their own minds about how they should cast their ballots on Tuesday.
Christensen is president of the Oklahoma Bar Association.