Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Cockroft Column: With Voter Confusion, Judicial Reform Being Discussed

Elections are always a good indicator of how tuned in the people around you are to politics. There are always people who know a lot about what’s going on in the world and those who know less. Year after year though, it is very clear that almost no one knows much about their judges and justices. The most common question I am asked during each election season is my thoughts on the retention ballots. Many people become frustrated with the lack of information on the judicial candidates, which stems from an effort to keep the judicial system non-partisan. For these reason, many of my colleagues and I have discussed measures to increase judicial accountability. For me, there is no clear path to take with this topic, but it is worth discussing and looking into. Infusing transparency and openness into state government is always a worthwhile endeavor. 

Senate Joint Resolution 21, a piece of legislation that failed to garner the necessary votes last year, would have introduced a reform to the state’s Judicial Nominating Commission. This 15-member commission nominates candidates to fill vacant judgeships across Oklahoma. The Governor then chooses judges from among their nominees. Six members of the commission are always attorneys and the rest are always non-lawyers. Currently, the six attorneys are elected to seats on the commission by members of the Oklahoma Bar Association. SJR 21 would have allowed the Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives to appoint three of the attorneys and the Senate President Pro Tempore to appoint three members.

Opponents of the reform have criticized it as a partisan move similar to gerrymandering, basically that Republicans want to further increase their power by having a stronger hand in the nominating process. The simple truth though is that any change to election law is going to look like the majority party is making a power play no matter if it is by the Democrats or Republicans. Instead of responding to such cynical criticism, I am going to simply state the facts. The courts have made questionable judgements on legislation that would have a positive impact for most Oklahomans, but a negative impact on lawyers. The Oklahoma Bar Association’s strong part in the current process gives them a lot of impact on affecting those court decisions. Placing that power instead in the hands of elected officials, returns some of that power to the people.

Other reforms we have discussed include a constitutional amendment that would allow the governor, with the advice and consent of the Senate, to appoint the Supreme Court of Oklahoma’s chief justice. Another constitutional amendment would place 20-year term limits on state justices and appeals court judges. Yet another constitutional amendment would place an age limit on Oklahoma’s Supreme Court Judges. All of these measures would go to a vote of the people. 

Oklahoma has a history of tinkering with its government system, a lot of which has led to improved accountability. Corruption has always been a problem in our state, so the people have time and time again tried to limit it with thoughtful reforms. These reforms are no different and I plan to continue to look into them in the upcoming session.

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