Oklahoma Supreme Court flexes its muscles in 2013

An overview of the influential decisions made in 2013 by Oklahoma courts.
BY TIM TALLEY Published: December 26, 2013

Flexing its muscles, the Oklahoma Supreme Court in 2013 overturned tax cuts and rejected legislative efforts to change a portion of the state's legal system. Other courts influenced the state, too, with decisions on the new federal health care law and the convictions of two former legislators.

In June, a civil justice reform measure hailed in 2009 as the most comprehensive bill to impact Oklahoma's legal system was declared unconstitutional by the nine-member state Supreme Court. Gov. Mary Fallin recalled legislators to the Capitol to repass the bills in smaller portions.

Supporters said the guidelines would help block frivolous lawsuits and reduce malpractice and liability insurance costs for doctors and businesses. In a 7-2 decision, justices said the law violated a constitutional provision prohibiting bills from covering more than one topic.

House Speaker T.W. Shannon, R-Lawton, said the ruling was based in politics and said legislators needed to undo damage caused by “activist” judges. Shannon called for a study on term limits for judges, but Chief Justice Tom Colbert downplayed any perceived friction between the court and lawmakers.

“Our responsibility is to interpret the laws and we, in interpreting law, must make sure that it's consistent with the state and federal constitutions,” Colbert said.

The Supreme Court handed the Legislature another setback earlier this month when it nullified legislation to slash the state's personal income tax rate and provide $120 million for repairs to the Capitol. Like its June decision, the high court said the measure was unconstitutional because the bill contained more than one subject.

The high court wasn't always a spoiler. Justices during the year turned back challenges to a new workers' compensation law and the expanded use of a state bond program. The latter ruling cleared the way for a bond issue that includes $38.5 million for a new medical examiner's office at the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond.

Federal implications

The state's highest court also played a role in the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to dismiss an appeal filed by Attorney General Scott Pruitt involving anti-abortion legislation invalidated by the state's courts. It certified to the nation's highest court that Oklahoma's law not only limited drug-induced abortions but also effectively banned them altogether.

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