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Bribery scandal haunts Oklahoma courts still

Bribery scandal haunts Oklahoma courts still

Bribery scandal haunts Oklahoma courts still
Photo Credit: Camie Hayes

Bribery scandal haunts Oklahoma courts still

A bribery scandal that reached to the Oklahoma Supreme Court 50 years ago is still having consequences today. 

Earlier this year the Oklahoma Supreme Court overturn the 2009 Lawsuit Reform Act, causing the Oklahoma Legislature to call for a special session.

Discussions have been going on for quite some time about changing how Oklahoma appoints its judges.

Late last week a discussion on that issue was hosted by the Federalist Society at the Mayo Hotel.

Up until 1969, all judges in Oklahoma had to run for elected office.

That all changed when three Oklahoma Supreme Court judges were embroiled in a bribery scandal that put Oklahoma in the national spotlight in the mid-1960’s.

“Justice for Sale,” by Oklahoma Supreme Court Judge William Berry is the story of that scandal.

After the judges involved were convicted or resigned because of the scandal, the Oklahoma legislature changed how judges for the state’s appellate courts and supreme court were chosen.

Currently, county judges still are elected by the public.

Judges for the higher courts go through a judicial nominating commission that screens applicants and then recommends the three best nominees to the Governor. 

The Governor then picks someone out of the three nominees to fill an open position in the state’s higher courts.

During the program, University of Pittsburg Professor Chris Bonneau, Vanderbilt University professor Brian Fitzpatrick and prominent Tulsa attorney John Tucker discussed the aspects of various ways to select judges.

Professor Bonneau thinks that all judges should be elected by the public, as current systems that use nominating commissions do not represent the public’s viewpoint.

 Professor Fitzpatrick generally believes that state judges should use the Federal method of appointing judges, primarily because it was the way that all judges were picked when the country founded.

John Tucker, the current head of the Judicial Nominating Commission, explained how the commission is made up of 15 people, nine non-attorneys and six attorneys.

Since Oklahoma has converted to a nominating commission, there have been 307 judges appointed, and only one has had to be removed from office because of mental health issues.

Mr. Tucker also told the story of how he tried a case in Muskogee several years ago before a judge who was influenced by campaign contributions. 

Mr. Tucker represented the defendant.

The other side was represented by the judge’s largest campaign contributor and the judge’s law office partner.

When the verdict was handed down, the campaign contributor and the law partner’s side won.

Years later, the bailiff in that case personally told Mr. Tucker that even the jury had been hand-picked so that the judge’s campaign contributor would win.

With the Oklahoma legislature and the Oklahoma State Chamber of Oklahoma supporting judicial reform, this issue is not going to go away soon.

After the presentations, KRMG posed a question to all three panelists regarding how the public can be better educated on judicial nomination and retention.

Professor Bonneau says that having general elections educates the public about how a judge will rule and what is important to the judge, even with negative campaign ads.

Professor Fitzpatrick declined to answer the question.

Mr. Tucker believes that since civics have been cut by public schools, that the public does not know enough about how electing judges is a different type of situation than electing state representatives.

Elections in 2014 include judicial retention elections.

For information on judges up for retention, visit www.courtfacts.org.

Federalist Society events are open to the public to attend.

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