The Norman Transcript


September 29, 2013

Oklahoma high court justice downplays rift talk

OKLAHOMA CITY — Despite some barbs from legislators in recent weeks over the judiciary’s power in Oklahoma, the chief justice of the state’s highest court downplayed the suggestion of tension between the two branches of government.

“First of all, I don’t see a conflict between the Legislature and the Supreme Court,” Chief Justice Tom Colbert told The Associated Press. “All of us, I think we have a good working relationship with the Legislature as well as the executive branch.”

But several members in the increasingly conservative Legislature are growing more vocal about their exasperation with the Oklahoma Supreme Court, which continues to strike down bills as unconstitutional.

After the Supreme Court in June struck down a 2009 bill that made sweeping changes to the state’s tort laws, prompting the Legislature to return for a special session, Republican House Speaker T.W. Shannon, R-Lawton, quickly called for a legislative study on the idea of term limits for judges and the effectiveness of the judicial selection process.

Sen. Clark Jolley, the chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, was even more direct in his criticism of the court and the process for selecting judges.

“The judiciary appoint themselves, and that’s a major problem,” said Jolley, R-Edmond. “It just underscores what I’ve been saying for several years now, and that is that the Oklahoma judiciary is not independent. It is not equal to the other two branches.”

The nine-member Oklahoma Supreme Court currently includes eight appointees by former Democratic governors, including six by former Democratic Gov. Brad Henry, and just one justice, James Winchester, appointed by a Republican.

The chief justice position rotates among the nine justices.

Colbert declined to discuss any specifics of court rulings, but he said the high court’s general role is to ensure that laws presented to the court are constitutionally sound.

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