The Norman Transcript

April 12, 2014

Lawyers protest appointment takeover

By Janelle Stecklein
The Norman Transcript

OKLAHOMA CITY — A top Oklahoma lawyer is protesting a move by the Legislature to wrest control of the way judges are chosen, which she says could taint the state’s judicial system.

A measure sponsored by Rep. Jason Murphey, R-Guthrie, would change the state’s judicial nominating process by taking away the Oklahoma Bar Association’s power to elect six lawyers to the 15-member Judicial Nominating Commission.

It instead gives those appointments — three apiece — to the Speaker of the House and the Senate President Pro Tem.

The Nominating Commission screens candidates for appellate judgeships; the governor makes appointments from its suggested nominees. The Bar Association now chooses six members of the commission in a non-partisan election — one from each of the state’s six congressional districts.

“If something’s not broken, why fix it?” said Renée DeMoss, of Tulsa, the Bar Association’s president. “What is being proposed leads to corruption. We have three separate branches of government for a reason. They should be separate and independent.”

DeMoss said she fears that all six of the commission members chosen by the Legislature would be Republican, since the party controls both houses.

The nominating commission’s other nine members are appointed by a variety of people. The governor chooses six — one from each congressional district.

The Senate president appoints one, the Speaker of the House appoints another, and the last is chosen by the commission, itself. The law says those nine nominees cannot all be from the same political party.

The current system, involving the Bar Association, was adopted in the 1960s after a political and judicial scandal that included a $150,000 bribe and a rigged Supreme Court verdict, said DeMoss. “Ultimately that was the final straw in a whole history of cases being fixed, politicians being paid,” she said.

Since then, 309 judges have gone through the nomination process and been appointed to the bench, she said. Only one has been removed from office.

House Speaker Jeff Hickman, R-Fairview, said the resolution doesn’t propose “wholesale change.”

“I think the belief is that we do need some different people on there than just having the Bar Association selecting those — maybe some different options,” said Hickman.

He said the bar’s election process is also political, even if it’s nominally non-partisan.

“I hear that’s a very contested and political process within the Bar Association, so I don’t know that you’d say (our method) would politicize it at all,” he said.

If the system is changed, he said legislators would take input on their selections from the bar.

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