NORMAN — Several Cleveland County lawmakers are working hard to pass a law granting the county another district judge position, despite repeated efforts by a Senate colleague to crush the legislation.
Proposed legislation has been sent several times in the past two years to Moore Republican Sen. Anthony Sykes, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Sykes’ latest effort was to block an amendment to Senate Bill 820 that would have authorized a fourth district judge for Cleveland County.
And he succeeded. Sykes has declined to explain why he opposes adding a judge.
Despite Sykes’ opposition, Rep. Bobby Cleveland, R-Slaughterville, is leading the fight to win passage of a statute granting a fourth district judge for Cleveland County.
Tracy Schumacher, Cleveland County’s chief judge, said, “We absolutely, positively have to have another judge.” Schumacher said due to heavy caseloads, judges are having to set civil and divorce cases filed in April on dockets scheduled in late August or September.
“There is no reason why Cleveland County should have further delays because there is a senator blocking it,” Schumacher said. “ This is an injustice to Cleveland County residents.”
Last year, Sykes told fellow Cleveland County lawmakers that he would support the legislation only if it stipulated that the new judge must reside north of Indian Hills Road. Sykes’ senatorial district includes northern Cleveland County.
However, House members say this would set a bad precedent, with senators having too much influence in selecting judges.
Rep. Scott Martin, R-Norman, said he went to Sykes’ office to plead for passage of the bill. Sykes told Martin that he was not convinced Cleveland County needs another judge. Martin is chairman of the House Budget and Appropriations Committee.
Sykes did not return a phone call asking for comment. Typically, the senator does not talk to the news media.
Adding another judge to Cleveland County would not cost taxpayers any more money, Cleveland said, but only if the Legislature acts quickly.
Cleveland said that if the Legislature does not act in the last few weeks of the session, the chance for Cleveland County to gain a seat will be lost.
Currently, it costs taxpayers about $300,000 for a judge post, which includes salaries for a court reporter and bailiff.
A district judge earns an annual salary of $124,373. An associate judge receives $114,713, and a special judge $105,053. Their pay has remained unchanged since 2008.
If the judicial move is not made, Seminole County voters will be casting ballots to elect a second district judge. As long as the position has been designated by state law, the county will have to call an election to fill that post.
It is up to lawmakers to change judicial districts.
At the start of the session, Rep. Aaron Stiles, R-Norman, introduced a bill to move a judge post from Seminole County to Cleveland County. But the measure failed to gain traction when it went to Sykes’ Senate Judicial Committee.
A year ago, Stiles proposed the same legislation. Gov. Mary Fallin delayed filling the Seminole County post, thinking that the Legislature would make the move.
At the time, Oklahoma Chief Justice Steven Taylor pointed out to a legislative committee the population disparity between the two counties, while it is up to the Legislature to make such changes.
Stiles noted that there is a judge for more than 28,000 residents in Cleveland County. In Seminole County, there is a judge per 6,100 residents.
Cleveland County judges represent an average 28,122 residents, based on figures compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau Population Estimates for 2005.
This compares to Oklahoma County having a judge per 20,134 residents, and Tulsa County with 17,876.
Rep. Cleveland noted that the disparity among the three largest counties has grown even more since 2005, because of population gains in Cleveland County.
Since Sykes dropped from a bill all of the language proposed to move the seat, Cleveland spotted another bill and had it inserted into the measure.
The bill outlines voting boundaries in Oklahoma and Tulsa counties, which Cleveland hopes will assure passage because those two counties need the legislation.
According to legislative rules, the bill with Cleveland’s amendment will bypass Sykes’ judicial committee when goes over to the Senate. It would go directly to a joint House-Senate conference committee for a hearing.
“This is all about Cleveland County and its need for another judge,” Cleveland said. It also would benefit taxpayers across the state because they would not have to allocate more money to pay yet another judge, he added.