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How They Voted: House Rejects Resolution to Change Oklahoma’s Judicial Selection Process

Bison Blinds

By Keaton Ross, Oklahoma Watch

Several dozen House Republicans joined Democrats on Tuesday to reject a measure seeking sweeping changes to Oklahoma’s judicial nomination system. 

By a vote of 36-60, representatives rejected Senate Joint Resolution 34, which proposed allowing the governor to nominate judicial officers and send names to the Legislature for final confirmation. Because the resolution sought to change the state constitution, it would have required final approval from voters via a state question. 

Voters established the Judicial Nominating Commission by state question in 1967, in the aftermath of a bribery scandal involving three state Supreme Court justices, who were forced out after it came to light the judges took kickbacks for favorable decisions for 25 years.

Rep. Anthony Moore, R-Clinton, was the sole Republican to debate against the measure. He said uprooting the current system would make it more difficult to appoint qualified candidates and have the unintended consequence of delaying court proceedings in some civil and juvenile cases. 

“Those that cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” Moore said. “Unfortunately that’s where we are heading today.”

The fifteen-member board, whose members are appointed by the governor, Oklahoma Bar Association and legislative leaders, vets candidates to serve on the state Supreme Court, Court of Criminal Appeals and Court of Civil Appeals. The commission forwards three candidates for each vacancy to the governor for a final decision. 

Judicial Nominating Commission meetings are not subject to the state’s Open Meeting Act, though the body does consider public comment on candidates. 

Proponents of the measure said abolishing the Judicial Nominating Commission would boost transparency and allow lawmakers to individually evaluate the merit of a judicial candidate before their appointment. The Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, a right-leaning think tank based in Oklahoma City, lobbied in favor of the measure. 

“Right now the only say we have in any of these judicial picks is the speaker gets one appointee and senate pro tem gets one appointee,” said the resolution’s House sponsor Mark Lepak, R-Claremore. “This brings our body into the process in the way we’ve not ever had.”

Critics of the measure, including the Oklahoma Bar Association and Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr., argued the measure would inject unnecessary partisanship and political influence into a process that has worked well for decades. Opponents also expressed concerns that the governor could nominate a candidate for political or financial reasons. 

Rep. Monroe Nichols, D-Tulsa, said changes to the system could backfire if the Legislature has a dispute with the executive branch. 

“A yes vote throws away the integrity that when we have to lean on the judicial system, we can do so without politics getting in the way of the law,” Nichols said. 

Oklahoma Watch, at oklahomawatch.org, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that covers public-policy issues facing the state.


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