NORMAN — Discussion is under way in our state about “reforms” that should be made to our state’s system of judicial selection.
In fact, a legislative interim study will take place at the state Capitol this week to further delve into those issues. Our current method of choosing judges is the right one for our state because it is the one best suited for keeping politics out of our courtrooms.
Fifty years ago, when justice was for sale, politicians appointed and confirmed Oklahoma’s appellate Supreme Court justices. There was no check on that authority. The result was a bribery scandal inside our highest state court.
Oklahomans found a new process, and it is still working. A Judicial Nominating Commission (JNC) was created by constitutional amendment in 1967. Today, the 15 JNC members are appointed in various ways.
The Oklahoma Bar Association elects six of its attorney members, the governor appoints six non-lawyer members, and three non-lawyer members are appointed at large — one by the president pro tempore of the Senate, one by the speaker of the House of Representatives and one selected by at least eight JNC members.
The membership is carefully designed to represent the various geographic parts of Oklahoma and the congressional districts as they existed in 1967.
While the legal expertise of attorneys is represented, by law, a majority of the membership must be non-attorneys. No political party is allowed to dominate the membership.
The JNC’s mission is to provide the governor with three candidates for appointment to an open appellate position on the Supreme Court, the Court of Criminal Appeals or the Court of Civil Appeals. Those candidates are determined based on qualifications and merit, not politics or the ability to raise political dollars.
The governor then selects from among the three qualified candidates and makes the judicial appointment.
The rule of law has been fortified as a result of choosing those judges correctly. We enjoy a court system that is both fair and impartial. Cases have been decided based on our state Constitution and current law. Most importantly, the court has protected our rights as Oklahomans.
Political interference in the courts will end that protection. Going back to letting the politicians appoint the justices with no check on that authority just puts politics squarely back in our courts. The courts should remain non-partisan and non-political.
We paid the price of political interference 50 years ago. We don’t need to relive or repeat bad history to know the outcome.
Oklahoma has a fair, impartial, non-political, trustworthy system of justice. It’s the Oklahoma standard. Let’s keep it working without the political interference.
Jim Stuart is an attorney in Shawnee and is president of the Oklahoma Bar Association.