A series of court rulings has generated calls to change the Oklahoma Constitution and the membership of the judiciary. In this debate, the challenge for lawmakers is to advance valid proposals that credibly benefit citizens, not those that facilitate political power grabs.
The Oklahoma Constitution limits most legislative bills to only one topic. It prohibits special laws that treat similar groups differently. Those two provisions have been cited by the state Supreme Court when striking down several laws in recent years.
The justification for both provisions is sound, but their consistent application has proven difficult. The court’s rulings haven’t provided clear, easily understood guidelines, thus increasing the likelihood that future legislation will be challenged in court, impeding progress in Oklahoma.
As a result, some now want to amend those constitutional provisions, either through outright repeal or revision. In its 2014 legislative agenda, The State Chamber endorses amending the single-subject and special-law constitutional provisions “to provide clearer direction to the Legislature.”
This is a legitimate debate. Yet some critics argue the problem isn’t the state constitution, but the judges who interpret it. Thus, an overhaul of judicial selection and retention has also been proposed.
Three judicial reform bills passed the Oklahoma Senate last year and could be taken up in the House this session. One would allow the governor to select judicial nominees, who would then be screened by the Judicial Nominating Commission and subject to Senate confirmation. Another bill would set a 20-year term limit for judges. A third would allow the governor to select the chief justice.
Former House Speaker T.W. Shannon, R-Lawton, has filed three more judicial reform bills. One would require state Supreme Court justices to retire at age 75. Another would limit members of the appellate judiciary to 12-year terms.