Oklahoma Judicial Elections
By: Constitution Staff
When the Oklahoma Constitution was adopted in 1907, judges were chosen through partisan elections. Then, in 1965, a bribery scandal involving three Oklahoma Supreme Court justices was revealed. In 1967, these justices were impeached, or resigned from office, after investigations determined the justices had accepted bribes in exchange for making favorable decisions in cases.
In 1940, Missouri became the first state to adopt the assisted appointment method and it has since been known as the “Missouri Plan.” Oklahoma became the seventh state to adopt the Missouri Plan which was being pushed by progressives in both major political parties, the League of Women Voters, and the American Bar Association. On July 11, 1967, Oklahoma voters approved State Question 447 in the primary election by narrow margin. This ballot measure amended the Oklahoma Constitution by adding Article 7B which established the current system. There have been a few refinements to the system in the years since. In 1987, the process was expanded in to include the Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals. And, in 2010 changes were made concerning the membership of the commission.
Twenty nine states now use some form of the appointment method, with 17 of those including retention elections. Some states use a variation of the appointment system, typically nomination by the governor with approval of the legislature instead of a nominating commission. But, there are still 21 states that select their higher court judges by election, including seven that use partisan elections. Up until 1967, Oklahoma voters elected the appellate level judges just like they do the district judges, and associate district judges.
Although their appointments may last for life, the judges of each state court stand for reelection on six-year terms, which are staggered so that some portion of the state’s appellate judges will face a retention election in every even-numbered year. Voters can only vote “Yes” or “No” to retain the current judge. Since the system has been in place, no judge has ever been voted down.
In the event of a vacancy, the Judicial Nominating Commission submits three names to the governor, who then appoints one to the court. The justice then serves until the next general election. If the governor does not appoint a replacement within 60 days, the chief justice of the Oklahoma Supreme Court then takes the responsibility.
The Oklahoma Supreme Court originated with five justices; but in 1917, four additional justices were appointed to deal with the increasing caseload. Each of the nine justices represent a judicial district. Justices James Edmondson (appointed by Gov. Brad Henry), Norma Gurisch (also appointed by Gov. Henry), Yvonne Kauger (appointed by Gov. George Nigh), and Patrick Wyrick (appointed by Gov. Mary Fallin) are scheduled to be on the retention ballot in 2018. Justice Joseph Watts (appointed by Gov. David Walters) was scheduled to be on the ballot in 2018, but announced that he will retire at the end of this year.
One seat on the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals is up in 2018. Judge David Lewis (appointed by Gov. Henry) On the Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals, Judges Bay Mitchell (appointed by Gov.Frank Keating), Robert D. Bell (appointed by Gov. Henry), Kenneth Buettner (appointed by Gov. Keating), and Barbara G. Swinton (appointed by Gov. Fallin) will be on the ballot.
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