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More efforts to change judicial selection process in Oklahoma

The process used to select Oklahoma’s appellate court judges has been a target of conservative lawmakers the past several years. Nothing has changed as the 2020 legislative session gets underway.

Several bills have been filed that would alter the process, and one measure would do away with the Judicial Nominating Commission altogether. As this page has said many times, a thoughtful and deliberate approach is a must on this issue.

The JNC was created by voters in 1967 after a bribery scandal involving some state Supreme Court justices, who at the time were elected. The 15-person JNC includes six members who are elected by the Oklahoma Bar Association, six nonlawyers appointed by the governor, and three nonlawyers appointed by legislative leadership and the commission.

When appellate court openings arise, the JNC vets potential candidates and sends the governor three names from which to choose. Efforts to change this arrangement, spurred by Supreme Court rulings that have angered conservative lawmakers, have thus far been unsuccessful.

Gov. Kevin Stitt’s recent appointments to the Supreme Court — justices John Kane in September and Dustin Rowe in November — indicate that the JNC process works. Both men were the sort of conservative jurists sought by Stitt, who while running for governor said he would prefer more than three names be sent his way.

Previous efforts to change the nominating process have included requiring partisan elections for justices, reducing the size of the JNC, altering its makeup, and expanding the number of names sent to the governor.

This year, Sen. Julie Daniels, R-Bartlesville, is proposing not using the JNC for appointments for the Court of Civil Appeals, district judges and associate district judges, and instead letting the governor fill those positions with advice and consent of the Senate.

Another bill by Daniels would vacate the six attorney positions on the JNC and let the House speaker and Senate president make new attorney appointments. She also would like to make the JNC subject to the Open Meeting Act.

A bill by Sen. David Bullard, R-Durant, would have the JNC send all applicants’ names to the governor and chief justice after determining if applicants were qualified. The governor would make the appointment, with the chief justice doing so if it doesn’t happen within 60 days. Appointments would involve the Senate’s advice and consent.

A House joint resolution filed by Rep. Mark Lepak, R-Claremore, seeks a constitutional amendment to abolish the JNC.

Other efforts may arise. But all should be viewed with caution. Despite occasional complaints from critics, by and large the system for selecting appellate court judges has worked as voters intended.

EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this editorial said mistakenly that the Court of Criminal Appeals would be impacted by Daniels' legislation.

The Oklahoman Editorial Board

The Oklahoman Editorial Board consists of Kelly Dyer Fry, Publisher, Editor and Vice President of News; Owen Canfield, Opinion Editor; and Ray Carter, Chief Editorial Writer.. To submit a letter to the editor, go to this page or email... Read more ›