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Column: Keep Oklahoma judges out of politics

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From April 1964 through June 1965, Oklahoma was rocked with corruption and scandal in the Oklahoma Supreme Court.

Among other crimes, some justices were accused of taking bribes that influenced their decisions in numerous important cases. Two of the justices went to federal prison, one resigned rather than face impeachment and one was convicted of impeachment and removed from office.

In response, Oklahomans amended our State Constitution in an effort called court reform. Since that time, judges run for office on non-partisan ballots. Those who are appointed by the governor are nominated through the Judicial Nominating Commission, which is composed of 15 members.

Of the 15 members, six are lawyers appointed by the governor, six are lawyers elected in congressional districts by members of the State Bar Association, and three at-large members who are not lawyers.

Court reform established judicial districts that are non-coterminous with county government. Finally, all lawyers licensed in Oklahoma practice under the auspices of the State Supreme Court.

The purpose of court reform was to distance the Oklahoma judiciary at every level from the partisan politics of state and local governments in the hope that corruption would be less likely to occur. Basically, the purpose was to get judges out of politics.

Court reform has worked in Oklahoma. Since the mid-1960s there has been little or no rumor of corruption in the judiciary. Where judges are oppressive, they have generally been removed from office quickly.

Court reform has all but guaranteed that a professional and worthy class of lawyers have become judges at the district and appellate levels, regardless of the political party in power in the Legislature or the Governor’s Mansion.

Oklahomans may rightfully be proud of our judicial department and the changes that were made half a century ago.

Today, however, the forces of reaction and self-interest threaten to turn the clock back and to reimpose the bad old days on Oklahoma’s legal system.

Senate Joint Resolution No. 43, now making its way through the Legislature, would repeal those articles in our State Constitution that are the core of court reform.

The resolution would send to a vote of the people in November a proposal that would abolish the district court system and have judges run for office on partisan ballots.

It would terminate the Judicial Nominating Commission and have judges be nominated by the Governor and confirmed by the Senate. All sitting appellate judges and justices would be removed at the end of their current terms and replaced.

SJR 43 also creates two classes of practicing lawyers: one supervised by the Supreme Court and the other supervised by the Legislature. The resolution provides no qualification for the latter class of lawyers.

SJR 43 is not a conservative proposal; it is a radical proposal. It does not build on the good work of a half century ago. It seeks to up-root it.

Angered by 20 years of our appellate courts overturning clearly unconstitutional laws by the Legislature, the Legislature and governor seek to dominate Oklahoma’s judiciary and to rob our judges of their independence from political pressure.

SJR 43 would alter the balance of power and destroy checks and balances among the three branches of government. The Judiciary would become merely an agent of the other two branches and not the guardians of “equal justice under law.”

Without checks and balances, political and economic power will come to reside in the hands of a very few — the very definition of tyranny and corruption.

In short, SJR 43 seeks to solve a problem that doesn’t exist anymore and to revive old problems that were solved long ago.

Call or write your representatives, senators and the governor. Tell them to stop the advance of SJR 43 and to protect, at all costs, the rule of law.

Keith O. McArtor is a practicing attorney in Tulsa.

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