NORMAN — Oliver Diaz, former Mississippi Supreme Court Justice will be the keynote speaker at the Oklahoma Criminal Defense Lawyer’s Association annual meeting 2 p.m. Thursday at the Cox Center in Oklahoma City in Ballroom D.
The meeting is open to the public and will cover topics including judicial independence and integrity under attack.
The preamble to Oklahoma’s Code of Judicial Conduct states that “(a)n independent, fair and impartial judiciary is indispensable to our system of justice. The United States legal system is based upon the principle that an independent, impartial and competent judiciary, composed of men and women of integrity, will interpret and apply the law that governs our society.”
A press release sent by the Oklahoma Criminal Defense Lawyer’s Association states that the above passage appears to communicate a prosaic and widely held American belief that judges, as independent evaluators of the law, should be empowered to perform their constitutional function free from the influence of interested parties.
The release raised the following question: Where is the line between appropriate judicial criticism and inappropriate interference with a judicial officer’s performance of his or her constitutional duty.
Diaz will examine this issue. His experience as a Mississippi Supreme Court Justice was featured in the HBO documentary film “Hot Coffee” and provided the inspiration for John Grisham’s novel “The Appeal.”
Diaz served in the Mississippi House of Representatives for eight years before being elected to the Mississippi Court of Appeals in November 1994. In March 2000, he was appointed to the Supreme Court of Mississippi with only a few months remaining in the term to which he was appointed. In November 2000, he was elected to the Mississippi Supreme Court and began serving an eight-year term in January 2001.
In 2003, Diaz was federally indicted for mail fraud and bribery. He was acquitted of all charges in 2005.
Within a week of his acquittal, he was indicted of tax evasion. Diaz was acquitted of these charges as well, although his wife at the time received a two-year suspended sentence.
The prosecutions kept Diaz off the bench for a substantial period of his term and ruined his attempt at re-election. He and many others believe that the prosecutions were politically motivated and possibly part of a broader plan by powerful interests to impact the make-up and effectiveness of the judiciary.
In Oklahoma, judges are being evaluated and rated by organizations with stated interests. Judges who exercise legitimate judicial power in criminal and civil cases are subject to having those decisions repackaged and publicized in the form of negative campaign advertising by well-funded private organizations in furtherance of their group’s agenda.