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House rejects proposal to reform Oklahoma’s judicial selection process 


House rejects proposal to reform Oklahoma’s judicial selection process 

Apr 16, 2024 | 4:56 pm ET
By Janelle Stecklein
House rejects proposal to reform Oklahoma’s judicial selection process 
Oklahoma House lawmakers on Tuesday rejected a plan to change the state's judicial selection process. (Photo by Kyle Phillips/For Oklahoma Voice)

OKLAHOMA CITY — Amid concerns that it would politicize the process and harm rural Oklahomans, House lawmakers rejected a proposal Tuesday that could have overhauled the state’s judicial nominating system.

Senate Joint Resolution 34 proposed giving state House and Senate lawmakers the power to fill judicial vacancies and select those who serve in the state’s appellate courts.

For decades, the Judicial Nominating Commission (JNC) has been tasked with screening applicants and choosing three names for the governor to choose from. The existing process, which is constitutionally protected, was created following a bribery scandal that embroiled the state’s highest court in the 1960s.

Supporters argue that the existing process puts too much power into too few hands and could easily be manipulated. They said Oklahomans deserve a more transparent process that gives the governor the power to nominate a judge and lawmakers the sole authority to approve or reject it.

Critics of the plan argued that the existing selection process is working well. It relies on a mix of legal experts and lay people, removes partisan politics and undue outside influence, they said. 

They said because some lawmakers haven’t liked Oklahoma judge’s decisions regarding things like abortion, tribal compacting, and COVID-19, now they want to get rid of a system that’s prevented further judicial scandals.

“People didn’t get decisions that they wanted by judges and so now they want to throw the baby out with the bathwater,” said Rep. Anthony Moore, R-Clinton.

Moore, who opposed the plan, said Oklahoma’s associate judges are tasked with handling juvenile proceedings. He said if lawmakers take control of the selection process, it could take years to fill those vacancies, particularly in rural Oklahoma that has shortages of qualified people willing to serve.

He said the existing system makes it very easy to place qualified conservative judges on the bench that reflect the will of the people. And he blamed liberal groups for pressing for reform because they know it will “obfuscate the will of the people, the conservative will of Oklahomans.”

“The reality is if we go to this model, we better be prepared to triple the pay and make lifetime appointments because you will not get qualified attorneys interested in an appointment that could get changed two years later with a new governor…,” Moore said.

But supporters, including Rep. Mark Lepak, R-Claremore, said the reform creates a “very clean, simple nomination model that is well understood by most people in this country.” He said it would be similar to the federal model in which the U.S. Senate confirms federal judicial selections submitted by the president.

“This is simply changing to a more transparent method of vetting by people who are held accountable for everything they say and do, you and I,” said Lepak, the bill’s House author. “We’re accountable (for) our votes. We’ll have the opportunity to do this, the vetting. We will have vetting that’s out in the open.”

Lepak said the existing JNC model is not transparent. Oklahomans don’t know how the nominees are being vetted or where they stand on issues, he said. If people think the courts and the nominating process aren’t political, they’re “naive,” he said.

He said what’s to stop the JNC from really limiting the governor’s options by forwarding one candidate that they really want along with two others who are less qualified.

“We’ve all talked about the legislative smoke-filled rooms,” he said. “Well, I don’t think they allow smoking anymore, but that is something that is happening in a closed room, the selection of these candidates.”

He said voters should be able to decide if they want to change the current process, but he said there are a lot of people with vested interests who don’t want that to happen.

Rep. Andy Fugate, D-Oklahoma City, said federal judicial hearings have become “a partisan spectacle entirely focused on shifting the partisanship of the bench one way or the other.” They are rushed, and “bitter partisanship rules over everything,” he said.

Fugate said legislators should keep D.C.-style politics out of Oklahoma.

“It would be judicial malpractice to throw away our JNC and to switch to the federal process,” he said. “It’d be like trading a 1967 Ford Shelby GT 500 Mustang for a Ford Pinto. One is a classic, and the other will blow up in your face.”

The House could reconsider the measure at a future date.