Letter from Oklahoma: Let’s Not Trash a Judicial Selection System that Works

Throughout the nation, political forces are working to erode the impartiality of judges by increasingly subjecting them to elections. This open letter from Oklahoma—to legislators and other concerned citizens in that state—details why higher court judges should be insulated from political influence.   

April 6, 2015

We are writing as concerned citizens of Oklahoma who are worried that forces in the state are trying to change the judicial system that has served our state well since 1967. That year, a constitutional amendment changed the system of popularly electing judges to our state’s highest courts, which had led to a huge scandal involving bribery and corruption in the Oklahoma Supreme Court.

That scandal was detailed in a 1997 book, Justice for Sale: The Shocking Scandal of the Oklahoma Supreme Court.

Now, under that constitutional amendment, a Judicial Nominating Commission (JNC)—composed of lawyers and non-lawyers chosen by the governor, members of the bar, the speaker of the House of Representatives, and the president pro tempore of the Senate—carefully vets potential justices, in a process that includes questioning them in person and having the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation  investigate each. The JNC recommends the three most qualified candidates for a high-court post (on Oklahoma’s Supreme Court, Court of Civil Appeals, or Court of Criminal Appeals), and the Governor appoints one of those.

Oklahoma still elects judges for its 26 judicial districts, which handle most cases in the state. But voters are more likely to know Judges and Associate Judges of a District Court personally, or to know about cases they have tried. Those seeking to be on the higher courts must campaign statewide, making them susceptible to influence from rich donors who can finance expensive media buys to reach voters.

Let’s not trash a system that works well and go back to one that’s been proven to lead to corruption.

Sincerely,

The Members of the Bryan County Federation of Democratic Women

By MaryKathryn Hodge, President

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