Oklahomans overwhelmingly prefer electing state appellate judges and justices compared with the existing system of using an independent commission, according to findings of a survey released Tuesday.
But the head of the Oklahoma Bar Association questions whether those taking part in the survey recall a scandal nearly 50 years ago involving the state's Supreme Court justices, which led to the current selection process.
“Our system has shown to work very well,” said John Williams, executive director of the Oklahoma Bar Association. “The current system replaced one of those political systems that did not work well. It had corruption and problems that the current system has not allowed.”
The survey of 500 registered Oklahoma voters, conducted by North Star Opinion Research, shows that respondents by a 3-to-1 margin preferred having the appellate judges and justices elected. The poll, with an error rate of 4.4 percent, showed that 74 percent of those taking part in the poll preferred having the judges elected and 22 percent favored the commission.
The poll showed 69 percent of those surveyed would support an amendment to the state constitution that would abandon the existing commission and instead allow voters to elect all appellate judges and justices. It showed 25 percent opposed it.
It also showed that 76 percent of those responding favored term limits for appellate judges and justices while 22 percent opposed them.
The survey was conducted June 17-19, or about two weeks after the Oklahoma Supreme Court tossed out a law favored by Republicans that dealt with how lawsuits are filed, or tort reform.
The 2009 law, pushed by many in the business community and medical profession, was intended to reduce frivolous lawsuits and make the state more business-friendly, but it violated the state constitution's single-subject rule, the court ruled.
The survey was paid for by the Federalist Society, which describes itself as an organization of conservatives and libertarians seeking changes in the American legal system.
Oklahoma was selected for the study because of recent efforts in the Republican-controlled Legislature to change how appellate judges and justices are selected, said the study's author, Chris Bonneau, a political science associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh.
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.”