The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

National and world

April 26, 2014

Tension grows among Oklahoma courts, legislature

OKLAHOMA CITY — Long-running tension among Oklahoma's three branches of government boiled over last week with Gov. Mary Fallin accusing the state Supreme Court of overstepping its bounds in a death penalty case and some Republican lawmakers so upset by the court that they called for the impeachment of justices.

The latest tumult arose after the high court's decision to briefly delay the pending execution of two death row inmates, though the rift between the Supreme Court on one side and the Republican governor and legislature on the other has been growing for some time.

"It's a government of divided power, and of course powerful people tend to covet still more power," said Randall Coyne, a University of Oklahoma law professor who specializes in capital punishment and constitutional law.

A major role of the Supreme Court is to determine the constitutionality of laws approved by the Legislature, and since Republicans took control of the statehouse in the late 2000s, legislators have passed numerous laws later shot down by the court as unconstitutional. Just last year the court ruled a plan to cut the income tax and repair the state Capitol was an unconstitutional example of logrolling, or having more than one topic in a bill, and also shot down a sweeping civil justice reform measure that prompted Fallin to call the Legislature into a special session.

Despite the rancor, when the Republican-controlled House had an opportunity Thursday to give the Legislature more power in the selection of judges, the attempt was shot down by a more than 2-to-1 margin.

Rep. Aaron Stiles, R-Norman, the new chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, attributed the bill's defeat to a blistering lobbying effort by the powerful bar association, but said he and many other legislators still have serious concerns about what they perceive as the lack of a check on judicial power.

"If we don't have that check over the judicial branch of government, we have a Supreme Court that makes those types of idiotic rulings," said Stiles, referring to the Supreme Court's decision Tuesday to grant a stay of execution, an exceedingly rare move by the court that handles civil matters, and not criminal cases. "We want an independent judiciary, but we also want checks and balances over the judiciary, and right now we have none.

"They are a complete oligarchy."

But Coyne, the law professor, dismissed as "absurd" the talk of impeaching justices, which hasn't happened in Oklahoma since a court scandal in the 1960s.

"I think the call for impeachment was absolutely ludicrous and blatantly politically motivated," Coyne said.

Although Republicans control both the Legislature and governor's office, many Oklahoma judges, including eight of the nine Supreme Court justices, were appointed by Democrats.

Rep. Mike Christian, a retired state trooper and a supporter of the death penalty who drafted articles of impeachment in the House, denied that he was motivated by politics.

"The articles of impeachment were not a threat designed to elicit a positive response, but rather written and filed to outline specific charges of willful neglect of duty and incompetence," said Christian, R-Oklahoma City.

Christian went on to say he didn't care how the two men were executed, whether by lethal injection "or being fed to the lions."

House Speaker Jeff Hickman said in a statement that impeachment allegations are very serious and "not to be taken lightly," but he did entirely not rule out the possibility of considering the resolution.

"We will review Representative Christian's House resolution and determine if there is merit moving forward with such action," said Hickman, R-Fairview.

The Supreme Court seemed to de-escalate the tension when it ultimately dissolved its stay of execution and said the inmates were not entitled to know the source of the drugs that would be used to execute them. The decision paved the way for both men to be executed on Tuesday, setting up the possibility of the state's first double-execution since two convicted killers were electrocuted in 1937.

"It's become heated, and hopefully reason will prevail and tempers will die down before a constitutional crisis is precipitated with this really nonsensical behavior," Coyne said.

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Follow Sean Murphy at www.twitter.com/apseanmurphy

 

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