As the clock ticks down on the work at the State Capitol, lawmakers are considering a bill that could overhaul how Oklahoma's highest judges are selected.
Most lower court judges in Oklahoma are elected. However, for the state's highest court, those nominations are currently left up to a bipartisan closed door, 15-member panel that presents the governor the choice of three candidates.
“The truth is, it’s about as political as it comes, and it’s not transparent,” Rep. Mark Lepak, R- Claremore, said.
Lepak’s bill would ask voters to take the nominating power for the state's highest courts, like their Supreme Court and Courts of Criminal and Civil Appeals, out of the hands of the Judicial Nominating Commission. Instead, the governor would choose their nominee who would have to be confirmed by a 16-member committee of lawmakers.
Critics said it would politicize the process.
“I don’t want to claim that it won’t be political,” Lepak said. “Obviously, anytime people are involved, especially people who run for office, that shapes things.”
“A lot of legislators, and potentially the governor, simply don’t like the decisions that our appellate judges are making,” Minority Leader Emily Virgin, D-Norman, said. “They’re mad at them for making decisions they think are wrong or that they disagree with, so they want to dismantle the judiciary as we know it right now.”
Lepak told the Conference Committee on Banking, Financial Services and Pensions -- where the judicial bill was heard – that his wife sits on the nominating commission and his daughter was once denied a nomination by the commission.
“Good people go before that group and don’t know what’s going on and they come out of there feeling like they were attacked,” Rep. Lepak said. “If it’s an awful process behind closed doors, maybe we should take it out and have a look at it in the open.”
Because the bill is in conference committee, at least five out of nine House members on the committee must sign off before it advances. At last check, the bill hadn't met that requirement.