Judiciary Committee moves on reforms

The Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday approved a series of bills aimed at reforming the judiciary, including a series of legislative referendums that would reshape the way judicial appointments are made.

“These are important reforms that would shift the balance of power in the judicial appointment process in Oklahoma away from trial lawyers and back to the people,” said Pro Tem Mike Schultz, R-Altus. 

Senator Mike Schulz, Pro Tem (R-Altus)

“The governor and the members of the Oklahoma Senate are directly elected by the people and on behalf of the people should have more say in which judges are appointed to the bench. These measures, which now move on to the full Senate for consideration, present a variety of common-sense options to implement much-needed judicial reform,” said Schulz added.

Sen. Anthony Sykes, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, was author of several of the judicial reform bills.

“Oklahomans have been reminded countless times of the need for judicial reform in Oklahoma. If we don’t have these discussions about judicial reform, then we’re putting ourselves at the mercy of a system that puts too much power in the hands of trial lawyers instead of the hands of the duly elected representatives of the people of Oklahoma,” said Sykes, R-Moore.

Among the measures authored by Sen. Sykes:

Oklahoma Supreme Court

• Senate Joint Resolution (SJR) 42, which, if approved, would allow voters to decide whether to change the Oklahoma Constitution to require a partisan election of Supreme Court justices and Court of Criminal Appeals justices.

• SJR 43, if approved, would allow voters to decide whether to amend the judicial appointment process to model the federal system. Under this proposal, the governor would nominate candidates to fill judicial vacancies and the Oklahoma Senate would confirm or deny the governor’s appointment. The Judicial Nominating Commission (JNC) would rate the governor’s judicial nominees as either “qualified” or “not qualified.”

• SJR 44, if approved, would allow voters to decide whether to amend the Constitution to modify the judicial nominating process. Under this proposal, the JNC would provide the governor with five qualified nominees to fill a judicial vacancy, instead of the current recommendation of three nominees. The governor would be allowed to reject those nominees and request five new nominees. The governor would then select one nominee, whose name would be forwarded to the Oklahoma Senate for confirmation.

Additionally, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved the following measures:

• SB 699, by Sykes, would require all appellate justices and judges to retire when their combined age and years of service equaled 80.

• SB 700, by Sykes, which allows the President Pro Tempore of the Oklahoma Senate and Speaker of the Oklahoma House to appoint three attorney members each to the JNC board.

• SB 702, by Sykes, which adjusts the counties included in the Supreme Court judicial districts.

• SB 708, by Sykes, which requires a district judge to have served as lead counsel in at least three jury trials before being elected or appointed to serve on the bench.

• SJR 14, by Sen. Nathan Dahm, R-Broken Arrow, would allow Oklahoma voters to decide whether to amend the Constitution to require 60 percent of voters approve the retention of a judge.

• SB 213, by Dahm, which would change the boundaries of Supreme Court judicial districts to correspond with the number of congressional districts in Oklahoma plus adding at-large positions.