By Mick Hinton
The Norman Transcript
NORMAN — Legislative leaders in both houses pledged Tuesday that securing passage of a bill adding a district judge for Cleveland County is a done deal.
The measure was signed off on Tuesday by members of a joint House-Senate committee and now returns to each house for final consideration.
Both Sen. Anthony Sykes and Rep. Scott Martin announced Tuesday that a compromise has been reached in time to get Senate Bill 820 passed before adjournment later this month.
Cleveland County Chief District Judge Tracy Schumacher hailed the announcement Tuesday.
“We welcome this decision with open arms,” said Schumacher, noting that litigants in civil and divorce cases have repeatedly faced trial delays due to judges’ lengthy dockets. Cases filed in April were not docketed for hearing before a judge until August or September.
Passage will give Cleveland County another district judge elected by voters in three counties comprising Judicial District 21. There would be a total of five district judges for Cleveland, McClain and Garvin counties. The bill stipulates that the new judge would have to reside in Cleveland County to be eligible for the post.
Schumacher and others questioned earlier why a single senator was able to block passage of the bill by denying a hearing of the measure before the Senate Judicial Committee, which he chairs.
But in a prepared statement Tuesday, Sykes indicated it was he who had championed the bill all along.
“I am happy that the people will be making the decision,” Sykes said in a prepared statement. “The prior versions that contained the effective date of January 2015 were unacceptable.”
The bill in its latest form states that the new Cleveland County judge will be elected in 2014.
Sykes opposed prior versions calling for the post to be filled administratively by the governor the first time around, rather than calling an election. Sykes noted that the county could get a judge quicker by going the elective route.
“I am happy that the people will be making the decision,” Sykes said in a prepared statement.
Last year, Sykes would not support a judge bill because legislators said he wanted residency for the district judge seat to be confined to the northern portion of Cleveland County, which is part of his senatorial district.
Bobby Cleveland, the lawmaker who pressed fellow lawmakers to approve a judge bill for Cleveland County, said Tuesday, “I don’t care who gets credit for this bill. I am just glad it is being done.”
Cleveland worked to get the language into a bill, before adjournment.
Now the bill returns to both houses, where it is expected to undergo routine final passage. It could be sent to the governor later this week.
“The only explanation for creating an elected office immediately after an election is that you don’t want the people to be part of the process,” Sykes said.
It was unusual for Sykes, a Moore Republican, to issue a press release, since it has been his practice not to talk to the media.
In the release, Sykes invited those who wanted more information to call him at 521-5569.
“I am a firm believer that all power in our government comes from the consent of the governed and that the people should choose their leaders. It is sad that critics did not care enough to read the three-page bill or two-page amendment and notice that the people were being cut out of the process in both of these prior versions,” he said.
Martin said the agreement unveiled Tuesday will help the court system better address the large number of caseloads received.
“This additional judge, when elected, will provide much-needed relief to the court docket, which currently is meeting and exceeding capacity,” said Martin, a Norman Republican, who is chairman of the House budget committee that determines where the money goes.
“It was a pleasure working with Sen. Sykes to develop a solution for this critical problem of reducing caseloads,” Martin said in the release. “I appreciate his leadership on this issue. Putting the decision in the hands of the voters is prudent and I am confident that they will select a qualified individual to serve on the bench.
“This agreement represents a major victory for the citizens of Cleveland, Garvin and McClain counties.”
Rep. Aaron Stiles, an attorney who practices in Cleveland County and had worked to get the new position, said “the move is good for the citizens and businesses. “
“Everybody had ideas on how to get it done. I give Sen. Sykes a lot of credit. It not only saves money but it saves businesses a lot of time and saves our jail overcrowding in Cleveland County,” Stiles said.
Norman Democratic Sen. John Sparks said, “I applaud Sen. Sykes for his work on behalf of the Cleveland, Garvin and McClain county residents. This has been a complicated issue which has required considerable time and attention. The reassignment of a judge from one area to another is not to be treated lightly.
“Sen. Sykes, as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is faced with many such issues. I appreciate his diligence. The additional judge will address the needs of these counties, while ensuring voters will continue to participate in the selection process.”