“I am flabbergasted and shocked,” Burke said after reviewing those statistics. “I always knew there was a difference, but I had no idea how much. Some GOP judges turn out to be liberal and some Democratic judges turn out to be conservative … but there is a definite pattern.”
Workers’ compensation attorneys know the pattern well. It directly affects their pocketbooks given that attorneys who represent injured workers receive 20 percent of partial disability awards in contested cases.
With a lot riding financially on the outcome of elections, workers’ compensation attorneys traditionally have been among the most generous contributors to gubernatorial campaigns, with many making maximum $5,000 contributions.
In 1993, some were indicted along with former Democratic Gov. David Walters in a scandal tied to illegal contributions to his 1990 campaign. Walters pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor.
The four judges appointed by Fallin are Bomhoff, of Edmond; Michael William McGivern, of Tulsa; Lloyd Bradley Taylor, of Tulsa; and Carla Jo Snipes, of Oklahoma City.
They replaced former judges C. Kent Edridge, Gene Prigmore, Cherri Farrar and John M. McCormick.
Asked whether the governor would like to comment on declining awards, her spokesman responded: “Governor Fallin’s focus has been to appoint good, qualified judges that follow the law.”
Judges serve staggered eight-year terms. To date, Fallin has appointed four of the court’s 10 judges. She is scheduled to make four more appointments to terms beginning July 1, 2014, if the law isn’t changed before then.
Judges hear and decide cases individually, but appeals can be made to three-judge panels or the Oklahoma Supreme Court.
Oklahoma business leaders have been critical of the magnitude of permanent partial disability awards handed down by state workers’ compensation judges in recent years.
They point to a 2012 report by the National Council on Compensation Insurance that showed Oklahoma’s average cost per permanent partial disability case was the highest in an eight-state region and nearly double the regional average.
That same report showed Oklahoma workers file permanent partial disability claims more than twice as frequently as the regional average.
Mike Seney, of The State Chamber of Oklahoma, said high workers’ compensation costs hinder the state’s ability to recruit and retain businesses.
The rise and fall of workers’ compensation awards, depending on the outcome of gubernatorial elections, shows the system is broken, he said.
“What we’ve done has obviously not worked,” Seney said. “If we can have that much of a variance between governors appointing judges, we’re never going to fix the system.”
Time for a change?
Seney said most business leaders believe it is time to scrap the system and replace it with an administrative system.
Burke opposes such radical change.
Even though he represents injured workers, Burke said he would agree with employers who complain that judges have been overly generous with permanent partial disability awards in recent years.
However, the reduced compensation awards by Fallin’s four appointees are projected to have a $10 million annual impact on the system, he said. By the end of Fallin’s four-year term, Burke said he expects additional judicial appointments and the impact of 2011 reforms will reduce costs by $100 million a year.
“We should not rush to change a system that has been recently overhauled,” Burke said. “The changes are working.”
Fred Boettcher, another longtime attorney who represents injured workers, said he believes the judges appointed by Fallin are “darn good people.”
Boettcher said he has witnessed some radical swings in workers’ compensation awards in years gone by but hasn’t noticed a significant reduction in workers’ compensation awards handed down by the newest judges.
“A lot depends on the philosophy of the person appointed,” he said. “It doesn’t necessarily condemn either group. It waxes and wanes in terms of the interpretation of the amount of disability.”