Oklahoma Judicial Nominating Commission — Facts and Myths
The JNC nominates candidates for appointment by the governor to fill judicial vacancies on the Oklahoma Supreme Court, Court of Criminal Appeals, Court of Civil Appeals and the District Courts.
The JNC thoroughly investigates, interviews and evaluates all candidates for judicial office. It then presents a final list of three candidates to the governor, who must select a new judge from this list.
The JNC has 15 members. All serve without compensation.
Only a minority of the JNC, six members, are lawyers. They are elected by Oklahoma Bar Association members who live in each of the six congressional districts as they existed in 1967. These six lawyers are elected for six-year terms.
The other nine JNC members, the majority, are not lawyers. Six are appointed by the governor. No more than three of these six can belong to any one political party. Also, none of them can have a lawyer from any state in their immediate families.
The other three JNC members who are not lawyers are “members at large,” who serve two-year terms. One member is ap-pointed by the Senate president pro tempore, one is appointed by the speaker of the House, and one is selected by the other JNC members. No more than two of these three at-large members can be from the same political party.
After they are appointed, justices and appellate judges run for re-election in retention elections. Oklahoma citizens vote on whether to “retain” justices or appellate judges for additional six-year terms in non-partisan, non-contested elections.
Only justices and appellate judges who receive approval from a majority of Oklahoma voters remain in office.
No justice, appellate judge or district judge can be listed on the ballot by his or her political party.
The JNC system is centered on merit — whether a person has the right qualities to be a good judge. It takes politics out of the judicial selection process by measures including: a) limiting the number of lay members who may belong to any one political party, b) prohibiting current JNC members from holding any other public office by election or appointment or holding any official position in a political party and c) preventing a JNC member from accepting a judicial nomination while a JNC member and for five years thereafter.
The JNC is controlled by the lawyer members
Lawyers are a minority of the members on the JNC. Only six members are lawyers. The other nine members cannot be lawyers. The lawyers on the JNC practice in various areas of the law and cannot be characterized as “trial lawyers.”
The JNC is controlled by the bar association.
The Oklahoma governor and the Oklahoma Legislature pick the majority of JNC members. The governor has strong input into who is on the JNC and selects six JNC members. The Legislature has input — they pick two JNC members. The six lawyers who are on the JNC are chosen not by the entire OBA membership but only by the OBA members who live in the particular district where there is a vacancy on the JNC. Most importantly, the governor selects the judge from three qualified candidates thoroughly vetted and investigated by the JNC and the OSBI.
Judges are not accountable in the JNC system.
When an Oklahoma judge makes a decision that is legally wrong, the decision can be appealed. Further, if a judge acts unethically, he or she is subject to discipline. Judges must comply with the Code of Judicial Conduct and with the Oklahoma Rules of Professional Conduct, or they will be subject to professional discipline by the Court on the Judiciary for failure to do so.
Oklahoma voters have no say in the process.
Oklahoma citizens vote in all retention elections. Every six years, Oklahoma voters control whether a justice or appellate judge selected through the JNC process stays in office for another six-year term.
The Oklahoma JNC is the very same election process as what is known as the “Missouri Plan.”
Oklahoma’s JNC was specifically developed after an Oklahoma judicial election scandal in the 1960s. It is based on the same concepts as the “Missouri Plan,” but contains provisions unique to Oklahoma and is designed to keep Oklahoma party politics out of the Oklahoma judicial selection process as much as possible.
Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal, OBJ 85 362 (Feb. 15, 2014)