14th Amendment Guarantees Are Vital
By Linda S. Thomas
The 14th Amendment is arguably the most important amendment to the U.S. Constitution and is among the most often cited and most litigated of constitutional provisions. The amendment prohibits states from depriving any person of life, liberty or property without “due process of law” and requires states to afford “equal protection of the law” to all. Simply put, the 14th Amendment is based on the principle that citizens shall not be deprived of life, liberty or property without appropriate legal procedures and safeguards. It guarantees all citizens the same rights, privileges, protections and fair treatment through the judicial system.
Because of the 14th Amendment, individual rights are balanced with the power of the government. Absent due process and equal protection, I can imagine that the other rights afforded to us in the U.S. and Oklahoma constitutions would have little effect. Even the very basic freedoms – freedom of religion and speech, right to jury trial and freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures – would all fall by the wayside without the 14th Amendment guarantee of due process of law and equal protection under the law.
The gatekeeper of those 14th Amendment guarantees is a fair and impartial judiciary. Absent an independent judiciary, “due process” and “equal protection” would be an elegant vessel that holds little water. With 2017 bringing the 50th anniversary of the creation of merit selection of Oklahoma judges utilizing the Judicial Nominating Commission (JNC), it is the perfect time for the OBA to focus on the fair and impartial administration of justice for the benefit of all Oklahoma citizens.
We need to educate the public on the benefits of the JNC, to warn them of the potential ill effects of reintroducing politics into our judicial selection process and promote the public’s understanding of the importance of separation of powers, both central and essential in a representative democracy. While the judicial branch is often referred to as the “third” branch of government, nonetheless it is coequal with the executive branch and the legislative branch.
LEARNING FROM THE PAST
The JNC was created in 1967 after a bribery scandal involving three Oklahoma Supreme Court justices became the focus of the nation. Prior to the 1960s, all Oklahoma judges, including appellate judges, were like every other politician –raising money, campaigning and running for office in contested partisan elections. The bribery scandal surfaced in 1965 after it was revealed the three justices accepted bribes to rig votes on decisions before the court. Oklahoma gained national attention with Newsweek magazine calling Oklahoma’s system “cash and carry justice,” and Time magazine proclaiming “little in U.S. judicial history comes close to matching this scandal,” referring to the quality of justice in our state as the “best money can buy.”
Fortunately, as a result of this shameful event, meaningful judicial reform took place, and the JNC was created when the OBA House of Delegates approved and endorsed it in principle. Oklahoma voters overwhelmingly ap-proved to amend the Oklahoma Constitution to make the JNC selection process the law of our state. The obvious goal was to take party politics and potential corruption out of the judicial selection process as much as possible, and through the JNC, this goal was accomplished.
OBA TO CELEBRATE JNC’S 50TH ANNIVERSARY
In 2016, the OBA House of Delegates unanimously adopted a resolution reaffirming the OBA’s commitment to the merit selection of judges utilizing the JNC and celebrating judicial reform in Oklahoma. So as we celebrate the JNC’s 50th anniversary, I am saddened by the recent loss of the principal Senate author of the 1967 court reform bills, OBA Past President Anthony M. “Tony” Massad. Without fair and impartial courts, the words of the 14th Amendment no matter how eloquent or intellectual would ring hollow.
Likewise, absent a remarkable process to ensure that our courts are open, fair and staffed by capable judges, the dream of the 14th Amendment would never be achieved. The greatest achievements attached to the 14th Amendment are those associated with great lawyers like Tony who, from the statehouse to the courthouse, ensured the hard work to maintain our Constitution has been repeatedly performed.
Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal - OBJ 88 pg 932 (May 20, 2017)