The makeup of the Oklahoma Supreme Court and Court of Appeals could change under a bill on its way to the governor’s desk that changes the state’s nine judicial districts.
Oklahoma’s judicial districts are currently based on a 1967 map drawn to ensure geographic diversity on the bench.
“These districts were set in place 51 years ago,” explained University of Oklahoma political scientist Keith Gaddie. “The demographics of the state have moved more population away from the countryside and into the cities. But even more intense has been the concentration of legal talent.”
The Oklahoma Bar Association says nearly 70 percent of its members now live in the two districts that include Oklahoma and Tulsa Counties. That means the overwhelming majority of lawyers are competing for two seats, while the remaining 30 percent are vying for the other seven.
“Most of the talent pool that's available to serve on the high court is rendered ineligible due to geography,” Gaddie said. “So it makes sense to go to a different system.”
Legislation passed by the House and Senate aligns five judicial districts with Oklahoma’s congressional districts, which are based on population. The other four become at-large districts, making them open to anyone.
Debate over the bill exposed tensions between the state’s growing urban centers and rural areas, which continue to lose population.
The Enid New & Eagle published an editorial in March opposing the legislation.
“We believe House Bill 2366 will ultimately have a negative impact on Garfield County and, ultimately, rural Oklahoma,” it read. “Eventually, the Supreme Court members likely will all be from the Tulsa or Oklahoma City metro areas. The perspective of the county seat lawyer or a rural judge will be lost forever.”
The Oklahoman editorial board, on the other hand, chalked the bill up to common sense reform.
“It would produce a deeper pool of candidates from which to choose. All of Oklahoma would benefit from that,” the paper argued.
It’s up to the governor and the 15-member Judicial Nominating Commission, which vets candidates, to a appoint judges, who are then subject to retention elections.
“You could have a governor come along and pick four lawyers out of the panhandle,” Gaddie said. “ It's just a question of where you've got political ties.”
The changes would go into effect in 2020.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story indicated the Oklahoma Bar Association supports the redistricting. However, an official at the Oklahoma Bar Association says the OBA has no position on the matter.