The Norman Transcript

June 19, 2013

10 attorneys remain in running for judge post

By Mick Hinton
The Norman Transcript

NORMAN — Ten attorneys are vying for the district judge seat being vacated by longtime Cleveland County Judge Tom Lucas, records show.

Lucas, 79, announced earlier this year that he will retire from the post Aug. 1. Judicial District 21 includes Cleveland, McClain and Garvin counties.

Originally, 13 people applied for the judgeship. The list was narrowed to 10 by the Oklahoma Judicial Nominating Commission, whose 15 members will interview all applicants and submit three names to Gov. Mary Fallin, who will make the final selection.

Currently, the 10 candidates are undergoing security checks conducted by the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation.

These checks are expected to be completed in late July, and names of the three nominees will be determined the same day that interviews are conducted.

The 10 finalists listed in alphabetical order are:

· Thad Balkman, a former state legislator for six years in the House, who has been in private practice since 2006. Balkman, 41, said he wants to carry on Lucas’ work by expanding drug courts statewide.

“I am a firm believer in helping people with substance abuse and mental illness problems,” Balkman said.

· David Batton, 61, a former longtime Cleveland County assistant district attorney who left the post in June 2012 and entered private practice. Batton was with the district attorney’s office for about nine years. The first half, he did mostly criminal law, and the last half civil law.

“I’m fairly neutral, based on my years of experience and background,” Batton said.

· Jeff Bryant, serving as city attorney for the city of Norman, a position he has had for about seven years. Bryant, 51, served earlier as an assistant city attorney.

“That was primarily a litigation position where I represented the city in state and federal courts,” Bryant said.

· Cheryl Clayton has been an attorney practicing primarily in Cleveland County for the past 35 years. Clayton, 61, has been a leader recently of a group of Norman residents opposed to some high-density zoning north of the Campus Corner area.

“I have had a very varied civil law practice and a lot of experience in different legal issues,” Clayton said, adding that she has very limited experience in handling criminal cases.

· Charles Douglas, in private practice principally as a criminal defense attorney. Douglas, 62, said his past experience includes serving as an assistant district attorney in Cleveland County and elsewhere, when he prosecuted defendants.

“I have tried cases and been in the trenches there in courtrooms for 38 years,” he said.

· Robert Don Gifford, an assistant U.S. attorney with the Western District based in Oklahoma City, serves as a federal prosecutor. He also is a tribal court judge working part-time with the Kaw and Iowa Indian tribes. Gifford, 42, is a member of the Board of Governors for the Oklahoma Bar Association.

“I think my varied background and desire to serve the community qualify me for this position,” Gifford said.

· Blaine Nice, an attorney with the law firm of Fellers Snider Blankenship Bailey and Tippens of Oklahoma City. Before joining the private law firm, Nice, 54, said he spent almost 25 years practicing law as a municipal attorney for the city of Norman, including service as the first assistant city attorney.

“Probably there isn’t any kind of law I haven’t done,” Nice said, including representing Norman in municipal court.

· Laura Shaeffer, a partner in the law firm of Shaeffer, Shaeffer & Kernel in Norman. Shaeffer has worked particularly in the areas of personal injury law, workers’ compensation and civil litigation.

Shaeffer could not be reached for comment on this story.

· Leasa Stewart, an attorney with the law firm of Gable Gotwals in Oklahoma City. Stewart represents clients in litigation in federal and state courts and also has an active appellate practice.

Stewart could not be reached for comment.

· Steve Stice, a special judge with the Cleveland County District Court, a position he has had since July 2010. Stice previously worked for several years as a criminal defense attorney. He was selected as a special judge by the other Cleveland County district court judges. His post is appointive, rather than elective.

“Obviously, I am the only one in the field that is a current judge,” said Stice, 43.

The person selected for this post will serve until fall 2014, which is when Lucas’ four-year term would end. Then the next district judge will run for a four-year term voted on by the people.

Additionally, the county will get an additional new judge in 2014 as state legislators have moved a position from Seminole County to Cleveland County. That position will be elected outright with no appointments. The judicial posts are non-partisan with candidates not listing their political party choices.

A district court judge receives an annual salary of $124,373. The pay is set by the state Legislature. Salaries have not been raised in several years.

To qualify as a candidate, applicants must be a licensed attorney in practice for at least four years.

The 15-member Judicial Nominating Commission that picks judicial candidates includes six members named by the Oklahoma Bar Association. Another six members are named by the governor, while those posts cannot be filled with attorneys in Oklahoma.

The commission also includes three at-large positions, with one of those selected by the other commissioners. In addition, the speaker of the House and president pro tem of the Senate each appoint a member.