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Survey shows support for electing Oklahoma's appellate judges, justices

Oklahomans overwhelmingly prefer electing state appellate judges and justices compared with the existing system of using an independent commission. But the head of the Oklahoma Bar Association questions whether those taking part in the survey recall a scandal nearly 50 years ago.
BY MICHAEL MCNUTT mmcnutt@opubco.com Modified: August 27, 2013 at 10:27 pm •  Published: August 28, 2013
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House Speaker T.W. Shannon, R-Lawton, is holding an interim study on the selection process for appellate judges and justices and the possibility of term limits for justices.

The state Senate earlier this year passed a measure, Senate Joint Resolution 24, which would have limited the terms of justices to 20 years. The measure didn't get heard in the House of Representatives, but can be considered next year. If it passes, it would be submitted to voters. Appellate judicial terms are set in the state constitution and any constitutional change requires voter approval.

When vacancies occur on the Supreme Court or civil and criminal appellate courts, a nonpartisan nominating commission seeks applications and forwards three names to the governor, who makes a selection from those names. Appellate judges and justices serve six-year terms; their names appear on retention ballots on a staggered, rotating basis.

Bonneau said no appellate judge or justice in Oklahoma has lost retention. That's typical, he said. More than 70 percent of judges were retained from 1964 through 2012 across the country.

“Defeat is incredibly rare,” he said. “Incumbents win overwhelmingly and by overwhelming margins.”

While district and associate district judges run for election against other candidates, appellate judges do not have opponents on the ballot. The retention system is intended to remove politics and fundraising from appellate court positions.

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. The scandal led to changes in how judges were selected, with Oklahoma voters revamping the state's court system in 1967.

Williams said it is interesting that complaints with the judicial nomination commission seem to deal with political philosophies and not about justice.

“I haven't seen anybody complain that the court was biased or that the results were corrupted or that the court was not fair and impartial in result,” he said. “People haven't liked results, but they haven't brought forth any evidence that the results were tainted or corrupted or that they were influenced by outside factors.”