Judges and courts

Judges and Courts

The Supreme Court of Oklahoma

Marbury v. Madison (1803)
"It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is. Those who apply the rule to particular cases, must of necessity expound and interpret that rule. If two laws conflict with each other, the courts must decide on the operation of each."
- Chief Justice John Marshall

In Oklahoma, the idea of Law Day originated in Wewoka by the late Hicks Epton, an Oklahoma attorney and past president of the Oklahoma Bar Association. Mr. Epton and the Seminole County Bar Association started it with a "Know Your Courts - Know Your Liberties" program at Wewoka on May 1, 1946. Mr. Epton's promotion of Law Day grew to a statewide celebration and eventually gained national recognition in the 1950s.

In regard to Mr. Epton's original "Know Your Courts - Know Your Liberties" program, it is appropriate to look at Oklahoma's own appellate judicial system and, in turn to perhaps better understand how its unique organization helps further enhance independence of our courts.

Our democracy depends on independent courts where decisions are based on the facts and the rule of law. An impartial judiciary is a cornerstone of our democracy, one of the guiding principles that sets us apart from other nations of the world. Not only are Oklahoma's courts set up constitutionally to be fair, impartial and dedicated to the rule of law, but they have been designed to assure the integrity of judicial review, or judicial checks and balances, to guarantee the right of a fair trial and the right of fair application of the law for all citizens.

What Makes Oklahoma's Appellate Court System Unique?

Unlike most states, Oklahoma has two courts of last resort. The Supreme Court determines all issues of a civil nature, and the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals decides all criminal matters. (For more information on the Court of Criminal Appeals, see the accompanying article in this journal.)

Which Court Has Superintending Power?

In making its decisions, the Oklahoma Supreme Court interprets both the State and Federal Constitutions. If the question presented is one purely of state law, the Oklahoma Supreme Court is the final arbiter. An opinion of the Oklahoma Supreme Court, based on the Oklahoma Constitution, affording greater rights than those preserved by the United States Constitution may not be overturned by the United States Supreme Court. The Oklahoma Supreme Court decides no criminal cases. If a conflict arises over the jurisdiction of the two courts - Supreme Court or Court of Criminal Appeals - the Supreme Court determines which court has jurisdiction. Its determination is final and not subject to review.

How Are Civil Appeals Handled in Oklahoma?

In Oklahoma, all litigants are entitled to one appeal as a matter of right. Appeals to the Court of Criminal Appeals come directly from the District Court. All appeals in civil cases are made to the Oklahoma Supreme Court. Appeal may be made to the Supreme Court from the District Court, Workers' Compensation Court, Court of Tax Review and state agencies such as the Department of Public Safety, Oklahoma Tax Commission, Oklahoma Corporation Commission and the Department of Human Services. Many of these appeals are directed by the Supreme Court to one of four divisions of the Court of Civil Appeals. Most cases reviewed in the Supreme Court are from the Court of Civil Appeals. These cases come before the Supreme Court on petitions for certiorari.

The Court of Civil Appeals is responsible for the majority of appellate decisions. These opinions may be released for publication either by the Court of Civil Appeals or by the Supreme Court. When the Court of Civil Appeals opinions are released for publication by the Supreme Court, they have precedential value. The Court of Civil Appeals is made up of four divisions, each composed of three judges. Two divisions of the Court of Civil Appeals are located in Oklahoma City and two are housed in Tulsa.

When new first impression issues, or important issues of law, or matters of great public interest are at stake, the Supreme Court may retain a case directly from the trial court. In addition to appeals from a trial, issues come to the Supreme Court within its general superintending control over all inferior courts, agencies, commissions and boards created by law, with the exception of the Court on the Judiciary and the Senate sitting as a Court of Impeachment.

Under Art. 7, §5 of the Oklahoma Constitution, the concurrence of the majority of the justices is necessary to decide any question. Because the Oklahoma Supreme Court is composed of nine members, an opinion must receive at least five votes. After an opinion is adopted, it becomes legal precedent, and guides lawyers, litigants and judges in future cases.

Other Responsibilities

Deciding cases is only one of the Supreme Court's functions. The court is also responsible for administering the state's entire judicial system. The court establishes rules of operation for all other courts in the state. The Supreme Court formulates the rules for practice of law, which govern the conduct of all attorneys, and it administers discipline in appropriate cases. Additionally, many of the justices make personal appearances to speak to members of the bar, civic clubs and educational groups. These appearances are made in an attempt to help all citizens understand the court's workings and to inform them of the decision-making process. The justices are also called upon to administer official oaths of office to public officials.

Supreme Court of Oklahoma Justices

The Supreme Court of Oklahoma is a constitutional tribunal consisting of nine justices. Each justice is selected from one of nine judicial districts and sits for a six-year term. Each justice must be at least 30 years old, shall have been a qualified elector in the appropriate district for at least one year immediately prior to the appointment and have been a licensed practicing attorney or judge of a court of record for five years preceding appointment. The justices must maintain their status as licensed attorneys while holding office.

Contact Information

Additional information about the Supreme Court of Oklahoma, Oklahoma's Judicial Branch and Oklahoma laws and case law can be found online at www.oscn.net, the official Web site of the Oklahoma Supreme Court. Click on "Courts" and then on the following side bar, click on "Supreme Court."

Justices of the Supreme Court of Oklahoma may be contacted through the Administrative Office of the Courts at (405) 556-9300 or at their individual offices as listed in the Judicial Directory.