The bills deal with an overt attempt to politicize Oklahoma’s judiciary. Most were filed in response to the Oklahoma Supreme Court’s determination that last year’s Legislature failed to comply with the single-subject rule in the Oklahoma Constitution.
To understand the current situation, one must understand the not-too-distant past. For decades prior to the 1960s, county and appellate judges were selected by purely political means, and many judges served accordingly. That is not to say that there were not good, honest men and women who served on the bench at various levels with the utmost integrity.
However, the design of the system was such that judicial appointments were so politicized that undue influence was always a strong possibility and often a reality. As a result, in the early 1960s, the state was rocked by a judicial scandal of impropriety and corruption that reached the highest levels of Oklahoma’s judiciary.
With a goal of achieving a fair and impartial judiciary, Oklahoma’s Judicial Nominating Commission (JNC) was formed. The commission has worked well.
It began functioning in 1969 and nominates a pool of three candidates from which the governor may select one for appointment to fill vacancies on the Supreme Court, the Court of Criminal Appeals, the Court of Appeals, district and associate district judgeships and the Workers’ Compensation Court.
The JNC has jurisdiction to determine whether the qualifications of nominees to have judicial office have been met.
The JNC has 15 members who serve without compensation. Only six of the members may be lawyers. The six lawyer members are elected from six districts of the state by all of the attorneys residing or practicing in that region.
Nine members are non-lawyers. Six of the non-lawyers are appointed by the governor — one from each of the districts. Of the six members named by the governor, not more than three can belong to any one political party, and none can have a lawyer from any state in their immediate family.