Eight Cleveland County residents have applied for an open associate district judge post at the county courthouse.
According to a press release from the Judicial Nominating Commission, the nominees include Moore resident Bethany Stanley, Oklahoma City resident Lisa Connel-Hurtt and Norman residents Kimberly Conyers, Allyson Dow, Holly Iker, Michael Gardner, Allisa Hutter and Jon Williford.
The associate district judge post became open after Judge Stephen Bonner retired July 1.
Tammy Reaves, administrator of court services for the Administrative Office of the Courts, said the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigations is doing a background review of all candidates. The process typically takes six weeks, but the JNC has asked OSBI to expedite the process. She hopes the review process could be completed around the first week of September.
After background checks are done, Reaves said the JNC will interview each candidate separately for about 30 minutes. Then the committee will deliberate and nominate three finalists to send for Gov. Kevin Stitt's consideration. Stitt will have 60 days to make his appointment.
Cleveland County District Judge Thad Balkman said the JNC is made up of 15 members, including seven lawyers and eight laypersons, including a longtime Norman resident.
Reaves said the JNC is encouraging residents to comment about the applicants via mail to Administrative Office of the Courts, Attn: Tammy Reaves, 2100 N. Lincoln, Suite 3, Oklahoma City, OK 73105 or Jim Webb, Judicial Nominating Commission, Chesapeake Energy Corporation, P.O. Box 18496, Oklahoma City, OK 73154-0496. The comments will be considered in the interview process.
Balkman said he anticipates that a new associate district judge could be appointed around Nov. 1.
He said many of the applicants have come before him in his courtroom over the years.
Balkman said the new judge will have general jurisdiction and could handle a variety of matters including family, civil and criminal law.
In addition to the associate district judge post, the courthouse also is hiring a new special judge after Special Judge Steve Stice resigned July 31 to return to private practice.
Balkman said this is likely the first time in a decade that the courthouse has had two open positions at one time.
Currently, Balkman said the other judges have been covering those judges' duties and program. He is covering family drug court, District Judge Michael Tupper is handling adoptions, Judge Jequita Napoli is handling the juvenile delinquent docket, Special Judge Scott Brockman is absorbing most of Stice's criminal docket and active retired Judge Martha Kilgore is covering the juvenile docket through September out of the Couch Center.
Balkman said District Judge Jeff Virgin is tasked with choosing a qualified candidate for the special judge post. The candidate will be hired after receiving a majority vote from all of the district judges.
Once both positions have been filled, Balkman said as chief judge, he would issue a new assignment order.
“I want to give my colleagues a pat on the back. … Fortunately, the other judges have all been willing and cooperative in accepting additional responsibilities during this interim period, and it's our hope and our goal that there's not any delay or interference with cases and people getting court hearings,” he said. “All the judges are really working hard to make sure there is a seamless transition.”
Balkman said the judges have been able to mitigate stress caused by COVID-19, beginning around March, due to planning so courts could remain open to all necessary parties as much as possible.
“Cleveland County was an early adopter of conducting court proceedings through video conference platforms, and because we were able to do that, we were prepared and we really haven't had a big backlog of cases because we were able to maintain our workload throughout that time,” he said.
Balkman said eviction cases were delayed due to a federal freeze, and jury terms for April, June and September were canceled. The last jury term in the county was in January.
“We haven't been able to envision a process whereby jurors' safety can be maintained in light of the pandemic,” he said about why the jury terms were canceled.
He said another jury term is scheduled for October, and the judge will meet in September to determine if that will continue as planned.
Most jury trials have been moved to next year, Balkman said.
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