Is history doomed to repeat itself?

In 1967, two justices of the Oklahoma Supreme Court were convicted of bribery and income tax evasion; a third was impeached and removed from office. Shocked by the corruption in the state’s highest court, the people of Oklahoma determined to prevent this from happening again by passing a constitutional amendment that created Oklahoma’s judicial system that we have enjoyed for the last 55 years.

But today, the Oklahoma Legislature is considering a bill that would turn back the clock and return Oklahoma courts to the days of political favors and crony-justice. The drafters of Senate Joint Resolution 43 (“SJR 43”) would eliminate safeguards put in place to ensure the integrity of Oklahoma Courts and create the same opportunity for corruption and graft our predecessors sought to stamp out.

When Oklahoma became a state in 1907, our judges were selected by elections in the same way legislators and congressman are today. So, you can imagine that there was fundraising, identification with political parties, and often the candidate who raised the most money won. The fundraising activities of those days led to the Oklahoma judicial scandals which made headlines across the nation. The 1967 constitutional amendments that our parents and our grandparents passed replaced the corrupt system.

Part of the 1967 amendments created the Judicial Nominating Commission (“JNC”). The JNC was created to screen applicants for Oklahoma’s appellate courts — the Supreme Court, the Oklahoma Court of Appeals and the Oklahoma Criminal Court of Appeals. The JNC is composed of 15 commissioners — nine non-lawyers and six lawyers — who interview candidates after a thorough background investigation, a secret vote on three candidates who are then sent to the governor to pick who he or she believes is the most qualified. There is no campaigning, no fundraising, no political patronage.

But most of us deal with the district courts of Oklahoma — the courts in the counties where we live-where divorces are granted, wills are probated, and criminal cases are tried. Even these courts would be affected. According to the resolution, sitting judges would lose their jobs at the end of their term in office unless nominated by the governor or confirmed by the Oklahoma Senate. If the bill passes, candidates for judicial positions would be required to disclose their political affiliation and would be able to actively ask for money. That might give an unqualified candidate an edge in the election. It also might give the voter who gave a fat donation to that candidate an edge in the courtroom.

There are other aspects of SJR 43 that will create an upheaval in the way you receive legal services and justice in Oklahoma. If your legislator continues to listen to the influencers who want to control justice in Oklahoma and pass the legislation, it will affect you and your family — when you are stopped for speeding, have to endure a divorce, sell your house or lose a loved one.

Regardless of what you might hear from some politicians, hear on the radio or see on television, our court system is not broken, and neither is the way our judges are selected.

Please contact your state representative and your state senator and tell them you don’t want to have to buy your justice. Tell him or her to oppose SJR 43 in any form and to leave our justice system alone.

DeClerck is an attorney and co-founder of Enid law firm Mitchell DeClerck.

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