By Sarah Clough Chambers | Oklahoma Gazette
[ OCTOBER 13, 2010 – OKLAHOMA CITY, OK ] Want to weigh in on the nomination of judges statewide? If State Question 752 passes on Nov. 2, and you cozy up to the Senate president pro tempore or the speaker of the House of Representatives, you could do just that as a lay member of the Oklahoma Judicial Nominating Commission.
As the Oklahoma Constitution stands, members of the JNC are comprised of six attorneys chosen by the Oklahoma Bar Association, six non-attorneys chosen by the governor and one at-large member selected by the committee that appoints judges or justices when a vacancy occurs. If passed, the state question would amend the constitution to allow two new at-large members; one chosen by the House speaker, the other by the Senate president pro tempore. It would also bar lay members who are attorneys, or have an attorney in their immediate family, even if that person does not practice law in Oklahoma.
“Right now, anyone who’s not a lawyer, but is a resident of the state of Oklahoma can be a lay member of the Judicial Nominating Commission,” said Robert Sheets, an attorney with Phillips Murrah. “What you’re doing is taking out of that pool anyone who is related to a lawyer.”
Sheets said if the measure is approved, voters should know that it will amend the constitution and put the Legislature into a process it did not have a hand in before. Sheets warned it would also shrink the pool of qualified applicants to sit on the commission to only those without a lawyer in their immediate family. By inserting politics into the judicial selection process, Sheets said it could affect the judges who are eventually chosen.
“A judge needs to be somebody who is impartial, nonpartisan and no matter what their political background, no matter what their personal value system is, they need to make the tough decisions on what the law is,” he said. “The more you inject politics into the judicial process, the more it dilutes who becomes a judge.”
SQ 752 originated last session at the Capitol by Sens. Clark Jolley, R-Edmond, and Patrick Anderson, R-Enid. Both want the Legislature to have a say in who ultimately sits on the bench in Oklahoma. Jolley maintains the current process completely excludes the Legislature and allows the judiciary to pick themselves with little input from the governor and zero from the legislative branch.
“Imagine if someone said that we should allow the Legislature to select future members of the Legislature. Would that go over well?” Jolley said. “Yet that is what the attorneys within the judicial branch do: They select the judges who will preside over their cases.”
Jolley said oftentimes qualified candidates are shut out of the process to become judges because the process is dominated by attorneys and their families. He cited one constituent who he said had extensive experience in the law, but failed to ever make the top three names despite numerous attempts. Jolley said the current system also limits the governor’s choices when presented a pool of candidates for the commission.
“The only input the governor gets is in appointing the non-lawyer members of the commission and then selecting from the final three candidates,” he said. “If they don’t like any of the choices, then they are unable to say ‘no’ to them and pick their own choice.”
Oklahoma Supreme Court Justice Rudolph Hargrave, who was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1978 and plans to retire in December, said he doesn’t think that the state question will change things a lot if approved, but added that he feels the current system is working fine.
“For 40 years it’s worked, and I think worked perfectly,” he said. “I don’t see any point in fooling with it.” —Sarah Clough Chambers
WHAT IT WILL DO
A “yes” vote on State Question 752 would amend the Oklahoma Constitution to allow two at-large members from any congressional district in the state to be appointed to the current 13-member Judicial Nomination Commission. One would be selected by the speaker of the House and the other by the Senate president pro tempore.
The question would also bar any non-attorney member who has an attorney in their immediate family related to that person by blood or marriage.
Kelley Chambers contributed reporting to this article.