Three days after the Oklahoma Supreme Court tossed out a law favored by Republicans that dealt with how lawsuits are handled, the GOP speaker of the House is proposing a legislative study to look at term limits for the justices.
House Speaker T.W. Shannon announced his plans for an interim study Friday, a day after a legal challenge was filed with the Supreme Court on his bill that lowers the personal income tax rate and sets money aside for state Capitol repairs.
Some Democrats called foul.
“We have a great judiciary in the state of Oklahoma,” said Senate Minority Leader Sean Burrage, D-Claremore. “They're not a state agency; they are a third branch of the government.
“It seems to me this may be retaliation by the Legislature toward the judiciary,” he said.
The House of Representatives, under Shannon's leadership this past session, didn't take up a measure approved by the Senate that would have limited the terms of Supreme Court justices to 20 years. Senate Joint Resolution 24, which passed 38-6 in the Senate, would have sent the matter to voters. Appellate judicial terms are set in the state constitution and any constitutional change requires voter approval.
The measure is eligible for consideration by the House next year.
Shannon announced his study the same week the high court ruled a 2009 law that changed how civil lawsuits are handled violated the state constitution's single-subject rule. Also this week, the court was asked to take up a claim that one of Shannon's measures signed into law involved logrolling. That's a term used when several subjects are rolled into one bill.
Shannon's measure, House Bill 2032, cuts Oklahoma's top personal income tax rate in 2015 and provides $120 million over two years to pay for repairs to the state Capitol.
Shannon said his interim study, set for this fall, will look into term limits for appellate judges as well as justices. House members will review the current effectiveness of the nomination process and will hear testimony and gather evidence concerning term limits.
“As lawmakers, it is essential that we monitor the processes of government and ensure a balance of power among the three branches,” Shannon, R-Lawton, said in a statement. “This study will be a healthy evaluation of our judicial process to make sure we are properly serving the public and correctly enforcing the will of the people. The Forefather's created a system of checks and balances. We must make sure that system is not completely controlled by a powerful handful of activists.”
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.
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.
There are nine justices on the Oklahoma Supreme Court, 12 judges on the Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals and five members of the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals.