Judges and Elections
Judges hold an important and unique position. In our state, the people elect most judges. However, judges are unlike other elected officials such as the governor and legislators who can announce how they stand on certain issues. Judges and lawyer candidates for judge are somewhat limited in what they can say or do during a judicial campaign. There are good reasons for this limitation. The most important reason is that our judicial system is based upon a judge being fair, unbiased and independent. The duty of a judge is to follow the law. A judge properly considers every case on its own facts and applicable laws. Therefore, a blanket statement by a judge or candidate about particular issues may conflict with the duty of the judge to fairly consider each and every case.
To assist in providing information on judges and judicial campaigns, the Oklahoma Bar Association Bench and Bar Committee has prepared the following facts and questions.
How often do we vote on judges?
Trial judges are elected by a vote of the people every four years. If a vacancy occurs during a judge's term, the vacancy is filled by appointment by the governor from a list of three names of qualified individuals submitted to the governor by the Judicial Nominating Commission.
Appellate judges' terms are for six years. Appellate judges are first appointed by the governor from a list of three names of qualified individuals prepared by the Judicial Nominating Commission. They are then retained in office by vote of the people.
Judges cannot be listed on the ballot by their political party (Democrat, Republican, etc). In fact, judges are prohibited from publicly stating their political party affiliation. For the exact wording of that law, go to 20 O.S. § 1404.1
How do I find out more about the judicial candidates who are running for office?
Since it is very important for judges to be independent and not favor one person over another, the campaigns for judicial office are very different than any other office in the state. Judges are not allowed to say how they would rule in a case if it came before them or what their predisposition is toward a particular situation.
The best information available on judges is from the lawyers who appear before the judge or other people who know the candidates and know if the candidate is fair, unbiased, independent, can follow the law, has integrity and a good work ethic.
I want to vote for only good judges. How do I know which judicial candidates are good?
The most important aspect of our judicial system is that justice is applied equally and fairly to everyone. The purpose of our judicial system is to uphold the law. Therefore, sitting judges and lawyer candidates for judicial office should be fair, unbiased, independent, can follow the law, have integrity and a good work ethic.
Why don’t judicial candidates tell us what they think about issues so I know how to vote on them?
Sitting judges and lawyer candidates are prohibited from stating how they would rule in a particular instance or on a particular issue. Judges need to consider evidence in each specific case and then apply the law to that particular case. Further, in cases that go to trial, juries decide the verdict. The judge imposes the jury’s verdict unless it was an exceptional verdict not supported by the evidence.
Can judges accept money for their judicial campaigns?
Yes. In Oklahoma, judicial candidates can accept up to $5,000 from one individual. Most often, those contributing to the judicial campaigns are those who work in the judicial system, including lawyers. It is not considered unethical to receive campaign contributions from lawyers. The Code of Judicial Conduct requires judges to be unbiased and independent. There are some situations that could be considered a conflict such as when a material contribution is made by a lawyer who has a case pending before the judge. The Ethics Commission keeps all campaign contribution reports, listing the names of all contributors, which is public record.
What do you have to do to be a judge?
District judges must have four years of experience in Oklahoma as a licensed practicing attorney or as a judge and live in the respective district. Associate district judges must be a licensed attorney in Oklahoma and live in the respective district. Associate district judges must have a minimum of two years of experience in Oklahoma as a licensed practicing attorney or as a judge, unless they held the office on or before July 15, 1974.
To file as a candidate for the office of district judge or associate district judge, one must have been a registered voter and actual resident of the appropriate county for at least six months prior to the first day of the filing period.
No one who has been removed from judicial office shall qualify to file as a candidate for judicial office. That law is included in the Oklahoma Statutes.
What should I be looking for in voting for a judicial candidate?
Equal access to justice and fairness are the foundation of our judicial system. In order to remain fair and unbiased, a judge makes decisions based on the law and not necessarily on what the popular decision is. If a judge were to make a decision in a case based upon what others thought the judge should do instead of basing the decision on the law, then the judge would not be fair or independent. Public pressure should not be a factor in a judge making a decision in a case. Fairness, independence, integrity and good work ethic are important factors in choosing a judge.
What happens to a judge that is dishonest or has broken the law?
Judges are required to follow the Code of Judicial Conduct. Should a judge violate this code or various other statutes, the judge could be removed from office. There is a specific process for this that starts with written complaints to the Council on Judicial Complaints.