Our Judges: Who are they and how did they get there?
The justice system in this country and in Oklahoma centers around the courts. Under Oklahoma's judicial structure district courts have the authority to hear virtually any type of case and have three categories of judges - district judge, associate district judge and special judge.
When the State Legislature adopted the judicial reform act a number of years ago, all the old positions and designations of judges were abolished. Before then we had such things as the Superior Courts, County Courts, Courts of Common Pleas and so forth. They were all consolidated into the District Court, which now hears everything from criminal cases to divorce, from probate to civil suits.
Oklahoma has been divided into 26 judicial districts. Each district has been assigned a specific number of district judges, which has changed from time to time. District Seven, which includes Oklahoma County, and District Fourteen, which includes Tulsa County, have the largest number of district judges. Whether a county has its own district judge is determined by the Legislature, taking into consideration the population and, to some extent, the number of lawsuits filed. Where a district has more than one district judge, they meet and select the Presiding Judge.
Most districts have at least two counties, and several have three or more; however, not every county in a district has a district judge. When there is more than one county in the district but only one district judge, the judge is required to travel and sit in each county.
Although a county may share a district judge with another, every county has its own associate district judge. In addition, almost half the counties have at least one special judge. Some counties have more than one special judge. The need for special judges, who are appointed by the district judge(s), is determined by population. The Chief Justice of the Oklahoma Supreme Court has the authority to appoint additional special judges as the Chief Justice deems necessary. Of course, any new position must first be funded by the Legislature.
Normally district and associate judges are each elected on a non-partisan basis to a four-year term. The state statutes set out in detail which judges must live where. All of the judges elected must have been both a registered voter and resident of the appropriate county for least six months before the first day of the filing period. The candidate must also have an active law license and be admitted to practice in Oklahoma.
Unlike district and associate district judges, appellate judges do not run for reelection. Instead, every six years their names are placed on what is called a retention ballot. The voters vote whether to retain the appellate judge or not. So far, no judge has failed to be retained in Oklahoma.
When a vacancy occurs in an appellate judgeship, notice is published and judges and lawyers submit applications to a commission made up of lawyers and non-lawyers. The names of three candidates are then forwarded to the governor, who makes the selection. That same procedure is used to fill district or associate district judge positions when a vacancy occurs between elections.
What can different types of judges do?
District judges and associate district judges can hear or rule on any type of case. By statute, a special judge may not hear cases for the recovery of money in excess of $10,000, unless all parties agree to waive that rule. Most special judges hear the small claims cases and conduct preliminary hearings in criminal matters. They also hear family law cases and uncontested matters. Like every rule, there are exceptions and special judges may be called upon to hear other matters.
If someone is unhappy about a decision of the district court, there are appellate courts which hear appeals. The Court of Criminal Appeals hears all criminal appeals and is the court of last resort for criminal cases. The Court of Civil Appeals is assigned cases from the Oklahoma Supreme Court and renders opinions. The Supreme Court has the final say on all civil cases which are appealed. It can and sometimes does overrule a decision of the Court of Civil Appeals. The Supreme Court also rules on certain original matters filed with it.