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Legislation Would Strip Power From Judicial Nominating Commission, Let Voters Elect Judges

Ronny Richert

Justices on Oklahoma's highest appellate courts would be elected, not appointed, under a plan narrowly approved by the state House Elections and Ethics Committee Wednesday.

State Rep. Kevin Calvey, R-Oklahoma City, wants judges to run for election every six years. He’s upset about recent Supreme Court decisions on

"We have a serious problem in our state Supreme Court,” Calvey said during the committee hearing. “The public is wondering how did we get a Supreme Court that bans the Ten Commandments, kills every pro-life law that goes before it, doesn't allow property rights measures to even get on the ballot, even after referred to it by the Legislature, and a host of other problems."

Currently those judges are selected by the governor from a list provided by the Judicial Nominating Commission, which is made up of legislative appointees and attorneys.

"An unelected, unaccountable, non-transparent, elitist, special interest-dominated body that has proven itself to be corrupt, appoints people to the bench at the appellate level,” Calvey said.

House Joint Resolution 1037 would seek a public vote on whether to change the way judges are selected for the Oklahoma Supreme Court, Court of Criminal Appeals and Court of Civil Appeals.

Calvey said 21 other states elect their appellate-level judges. eCapitol’s Shawn Ashley reports state Rep. David Perryman, D-Chickasha, asked Calvey if there was any benefit to the current method:

"They need to be accountable to the people," Calvey said. Calvey said 40 percent of the Judicial Nominating Commission's members are lawyers, but that they only make up less than one-half of one percent of the state's population. Perryman asked Calvey whether elected judges and judges would be able to "…truly make decisions based on the rule of law" or might they be concerned about the impact their decisions would have on their next election. "We already elect district court judges," noted Calvey, "and I am not aware of any abasement of the district court bench."

One of the experts who spoke to the committee was attorney and author Bob Burke. He’s the author of How Bad It Was - How Good It Is: The Value of an Independent Oklahoma Judiciary.

Ashley writes:

Burke warned the committee that returning to elections could lead to problems like the 1960s Supreme Court scandals that saw three justices indicted for accepting bribes. Those bribes were given in the form of campaign contributions, he told the committee members. A.J. Ferote, an Oklahoma City attorney, spoke in favor of Calvey's resolution. Ferrate spoke in favor of moving to judicial elections during an interim study requested by Calvey. The current structure, he said, undermines the separation of powers. He said it should be left to the people of the state to determine who sits on the bench. Thad Balkman, a former Republican representative and now a district judge in Cleveland County, said he was questioned by the Judicial Nominating Committee for 40 minutes. Only one of the questions he was asked, Balkman said, would have been considered political. That question came from an appointee to the commission of former Gov. Brad Henry, a Democrat. Balkman was appointed to the court by Gov. Mary Fallin.

The measure passed on a 4-3 vote, and it now goes to the full House.

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Brian Hardzinski is from Flower Mound, Texas and a graduate of the University of Oklahoma. He began his career at KGOU as a student intern, joining KGOU full time in 2009 as Operations and Public Service Announcement Director. He began regularly hosting Morning Edition in 2014, and became the station's first Digital News Editor in 2015-16. Brian’s work at KGOU has been honored by Public Radio News Directors Incorporated (PRNDI), the Oklahoma Association of Broadcasters, the Oklahoma Associated Press Broadcasters, and local and regional chapters of the Society of Professional Journalists. Brian enjoys competing in triathlons, distance running, playing tennis, and entertaining his rambunctious Boston Terrier, Bucky.
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