OKLAHOMA CITY — Several lawmakers are supporting a bill in the state Legislature that would add a badly needed district judge post to Cleveland County.
But it appears that one senator’s political maneuvering could result in the legislation dying somewhere along the way.
Lawmakers say that Sen. Anthony Sykes would support a bill adding another district judge only if that person was required to live in the northern part of the county, home to Sykes’ Senate district.
Rep. Aaron Stiles, R-Norman, said, “Politics is getting in the way of an opportunity for Cleveland County to get another judge at no additional cost to taxpayers.”
State funds already allocated to a vacant Seminole County slot would be transferred to Cleveland County.
“Just one person is holding up the train,” said Stiles, referring to Senator Sykes.
Sykes, R-Moore, could not be reached for comment despite several attempts this past week. The senator, an attorney who chairs the Senate judiciary committee, is a member of Senate President Pro Tempore Brian Bingman’s leadership team, serving as an assistant floor leader. Bingman’s aide Nathan Atkins said that the “pro tem has nothing to say” about this issue.
However, Sen. Bryce Marlatt, primary Senate author of House Bill 2440, said he would answer questions concerning the measure.
This development occurred after Marlatt had been summoned to the pro tem’s office.
Marlatt, R-Woodward, said Tuesday that he supports the version of the bill that came out of the Senate in late April.
That was when Sykes’ political maneuvering had resulted in the full Senate vote approving the bill — minus any language that would authorize a judgeship to move from Seminole to Cleveland County.
Meanwhile, Sykes won approval in a Senate committee to transform the original two-page bill to 377 pages, but dealing with a different issue.
Lawmakers said that federal authorities are requiring the state to redraw some judicial district lines in the two largest counties so they are compatible with precinct boundaries particularly in neighborhoods with minority populations.
Asked whether the Cleveland County judge language will end up in the final bill, Marlatt said he did not know.
The senator said he realizes “there is a huge caseload in Cleveland County, and it makes sense to me to have another judicial position over there.”
However, Marlatt said he is satisfied with the version of the bill approved on the Senate floor — minus the judge language.
“I want to get this language that we have done, and I don’t want to bog this language down with some other stuff,” Marlatt said.
Sen. John Sparks, D-Norman, said, “This is a fantastic opportunity simply to accept this gift and not muddle it up with politics.”
Marlatt said he wants to get a bill passed by the Legislature that the governor will sign. Last fall, Gov. Mary Fallin delayed filling a vacant Seminole County judge post and decided to wait for the Legislature to authorize another Cleveland County judge.
Meanwhile, Stiles said he “cannot even get a foot in the door” to see Sykes in his office, much less work with the senator on a compromise bill.
Rep. Scott Martin, R-Norman, and Rep. Emily Virgin, D-Norman, both support efforts to add another judge in Cleveland County.
Sen. Jonathan Nichols, R-Norman, declined to comment for this story.
In Cleveland County, there is a district judge for every 28,000 residents. In Seminole County, there is a judge per 6,100 residents.
The chief of the Oklahoma Supreme Court, Steven Taylor, pointed out to lawmakers last fall that it was possible to move the vacant judge seat from Seminole County to Cleveland County where it is badly needed, at a time when it would not require more state funds to transfer the office.
The next step is waiting to see whether the Senate comes up with conferees.”
Marlatt noted that if no appointments are made, the bill will be dead, at least for this session.
Rep. Dale DeWitt, House author of HB 2440, also acknowledged that unless Senate conferees are named, the measure is dead.
DeWitt, R-Branan, commented that even if Senate conferees are named, “they could stack the deck with senators” who are favorable to Sykes’ stance on the bill.
“I just want to get this bill on the House floor with an up or down vote,” said Dewitt.
Reflecting on the overall legislative process, Marlatt stated:
“Things change from day to day in this building.”