The Senate on Wednesday approved a measure that would allow voters to change the way judges are nominated in the state of Oklahoma. House Bill 3162, authored by Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman and House Speaker Jeff Hickman, places a state question on the ballot for November to allow voters to change the section of the constitution that provides for filling vacancies for judges.
“The current judicial nominating process is highly political, not transparent, and vests too much influence into the hands of trial lawyers in Oklahoma,” said Bingman, R-Sapulpa. “This measure would remove the outsized influence of trial lawyers, allow the governor to select from a wider and more diverse pool of qualified attorneys, and ultimately return power to the people by allowing their directly elected representatives in the Senate to confirm or reject the men and women nominated to serve as judges in Oklahoma.”
The bill would call for the governor to submit the names of his or her judicial nominees to the Judicial Nominating Commission (JNC), which would issue an advisory rating of “qualified” or “not qualified.” The governor’s judicial nominees would then require conformation by the Oklahoma Senate.
Currently, the JNC consists of six attorneys selected by the Oklahoma Bar Association, six commissioners appointed by the governor, one commissioner appointed by the Senate President Pro Tem, and one commissioner appointed by the House Speaker. The remaining commissioner is selected by the other members of the JNC.
Bingman said the reforms proposed would make the Oklahoma judicial nominating process more accountable by mirroring the federal system, where the President has the ultimate authority and responsibility to appoint judges and the U.S. Senate has the authority to confirm or reject judicial appointees. In Oklahoma, the responsibility for judicial nominations is not as clear cut, nor is the judicial nominating process as open, Bingman said.
“We are constantly reminded of the need for judicial reform in Oklahoma,” said Sen. Anthony Sykes, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “The governor and the Senate, who are held responsible for their decisions by the voters of Oklahoma, should have more say in selecting the men and women who serve as judges in Oklahoma. The judicial branch is a co-equal branch of government and this bill is a giant step forward in restoring the balance of power among all three branches of government.”
The bill now returns to the House for further consideration.