By D.E. Smoot
MUSKOGEE — A business-backed group that supports limits on how much an injured party can recoup in a civil lawsuit released its inaugural evaluation of Oklahoma’s Supreme Court justices.
The Oklahoma Civil Justice Council evaluated each justice based upon opinions rendered in 145 cases. The cases were selected based upon the potential each might have for expanding or restraining civil liability.
Case evaluations were conducted by the Judicial Evaluation Institute of Washington, D.C., and Sequoyah Information Systems. Justices were ranked based upon the side they joined in each case. Decisions made by those justices who scored the highest, evaluators said, “have had the effect of restraining liability.”
“The Oklahoma Civil Justice Council has been created, in part, to examine the performance of Oklahoma’s Supreme Court. It is vitally important for all Oklahomans to have information about how these cases, which often impact everyone in our state, are decided,” said OCJC President Fred Morgan.
Morgan said the evaluation is intended to educate Oklahoma voters who “have a right to more information before casting their ballot” to retain a justice whose term is up for renewal.
Appellate judges in Oklahoma initially are appointed by the governor to a six-year term. When the term expires, voters decide whether a judge or justice should be retained for an additional term.
Justice James E. Edmondson said that although the evaluation “may inform the public,” he suggested that voters “take it with a grain of salt, if not a full tablespoon.” Expanding or restraining liability “is not an issue that is on our minds when we look at a case,” he said.
“The superficial nature of it is a bit disturbing because it makes a bottom-line evaluation about whether a justice is an individual who favors an expansion of liability or opposes it,” he said. “I know of no justice that has that shallow of a view of our responsibility.”
Edmondson said each case is decided based upon the justices’ interpretation of the state constitution and the law as it existed at the time a case is presented. If the evaluation is intended to influence or intimidate the sitting justices, Edmondson said, that effort would fail.
Cathy Christensen, the president of the Oklahoma Bar Association, said the OCJC evaluation appears to be a “simplistic rating system” for what often can be “complicated cases.” She said the OBA plans to launch a website this month that will provide facts that voters need to make an informed decision without having to rely on special interest groups trying to promote an agenda.
“Judicial independence is very important,” Christensen said. “A judge or justice has to be able to decide a case without any fear of retaliation from the public or special interest groups.”
Christensen said the website — www.CourtFacts.org — will introduce to voters the justices and judges whose names will appear on retention ballots to voters and explain judicial merit selection and retention. The site will provide the biographies of each jurist and links to their opinions.
“I think what voters need to look at is the clarity of the opinion and whether it is true to the constitution and the laws as they existed when the case came before the court,” Christensen said. “Our intent in creating Court Facts is to provide voters accurate, unbiased information — just the facts. I trust our voters to make up their own minds.”
Morgan said voters need to know that “judges looking at the very same set of facts with the same rule of law to guide them often rule in differing ways.” He said his organization’s evaluation of the Supreme Court justices “will arm” voters “with the facts” needed to understand why that occurs.
Christensen said that can be done best by reading the court’s opinions. She urged voters to visit the OBA’s new website, which will launch by Wednesday, acquaint themselves with the jurists, and read a few of the opinions.
In her monthly letter, which will be published in the October edition of the Oklahoma Bar Journal, Christensen says that the opinions can help voters “determine each judge’s quality and clarity of opinions, knowledge of law and freedom of bias.”