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April 25, 2014

Lawyers protest move to take over judicial appointments

McALESTER —  A top Oklahoma lawyer is protesting a move by the Legislature to wrest control of the way judges are chosen, which she says could taint the state’s judicial system.

A measure sponsored by Rep. Jason Murphey, R-Guthrie, would change the state’s judicial nominating process by taking away the Oklahoma Bar Association’s power to elect six lawyers to the 15-member Judicial Nominating Commission.

It instead gives those appointments — three apiece — to the Speaker of the House and the Senate President Pro Tem.

Murphey, whose House District 31 includes Logan County and a portion of Edmond, said the bill’s intent is to improve transparency and accountability in the process.

“It’s not right for a private organization, which isn’t subject to transparency laws such as open meetings and open records, to have the sole authority to appoint 40 percent of one of the most important commissions in Oklahoma government,” Murphey said. “Appointments to this important commission should only be made in accordance with transparency and accountability laws and, when applicable, statutory due process.”

The Nominating Commission screens candidates for appellate judgeships; the governor makes appointments from its suggested nominees. The Bar Association now chooses six members of the commission in a non-partisan election — one from each of the state’s six congressional districts.

“If something’s not broken, why fix it?” said Renée DeMoss, of Tulsa, the Bar Association’s president. “What is being proposed leads to corruption. We have three separate branches of government for a reason. They should be separate and independent.”

DeMoss said she fears that all six of the commission members chosen by the Legislature would be Republican, since the party controls both houses.

The nominating commission’s other nine members are appointed by a variety of people. The governor chooses six — one from each congressional district. The Senate president appoints one, the Speaker of the House appoints another, and the last is chosen by the commission itself. The law says those nine nominees cannot all be from the same political party.

The current system, involving the Bar Association, was adopted in the 1960s after a political and judicial scandal that included a $150,000 bribe and a rigged Supreme Court verdict, said DeMoss. “Ultimately that was the final straw in a whole history of cases being fixed, politicians being paid,” she said.

Since then, 309 judges have gone through the nomination process and been appointed to the bench, she said. Only one has been removed from office.

House Speaker Jeff Hickman, R-Fairview, said the resolution doesn’t propose “wholesale change.”

“I think the belief is that we do need some different people on there than just having the Bar Association selecting those — maybe some different options,” said Hickman.

He said the bar’s election process is also political, even if it’s nominally non-partisan.

“I hear that’s a very contested and political process within the Bar Association, so I don’t know that you’d say (our method) would politicize it at all,” he said.

If the system is changed, he said legislators would take input on their selections from the bar.

Janelle Stecklein is CNHI’s Oklahoma state reporter and Capitol bureau chief. Contact her at jstecklein@cnhi.com.

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