Bill modifying Judicial Nomination Commission passes House

Cynthia Santos, eCapitol

House Speaker Jeff Hickman’s bill modifying members and processes of the Judicial Nomination Commission, or JNC, narrowly passed the House floor after some opposition and attempted amendments.

HB3162, by Rep. Jeff Hickman, R-Fairview, modifies terms of office of members of the Judicial Nomination Commission (JNC). The bill requires the JNC to submit to the Governor and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court a list of all qualified applicants when a vacancy in any judicial office or intermediate appellate court arises. The bill allows the JNC to include a merit score for each applicant of one through 10. It requires the merit score to remain confidential.

Prior to floor amendments made by Hickman, the bill required any appointment to judicial office or intermediate appellate court to be subject to confirmation by a majority of the Senate.

Hickman introduced an amendment to an amendment which would remove the requirement of approval by a majority of the Senate and created a “select legislative committee” to confirm any judicial appointments made. The amendment to the amendment was adopted by unanimous consent.

The second amendment proposed by Hickman further explained details of the “select legislative committee.” The amendment creates a 10 person committee, five members of the House appointed by the Speaker and five of the Senate appointed by the President Pro Tempore. It also requires that one member of the minority party of each chamber be appointed to the committee.

Because of an objection to adopt the amendment by unanimous consent, House members voted on whether or not to adopt the amendment. The amendment was adopted by a vote of 59 to 28.

Rep. Randy Grau, R-Edmond, then proposed another floor amendment. Grau’s amendment would not have created a select legislative committee and would have allowed only the top five candidates with the highest merit scores to be considered, rather than all applicants. Grau’s amendment also stated that the appointment could be rejected by two-thirds of the House and two-thirds of the Senate prior to the filing period.

Grau said his amendment would allow for citizen oversight and keep the most politics out.
“The fact of the matter is there’s going to be a change to the JNC,” he said. “I don’t understand the frustration with [the current process] and I don’t think it needs to change, but if we are I think my amendment is the way to go.”

Hickman made a motion to table the amendment, which passed by a vote of 47-46. A motion was then made to reconsider the amendment that was adopted by unanimous consent. Hickman then made a motion to table the reconsideration, which passed by a vote of 48-41.

Finally, without any discussion or debate, members voted on the bill as amended. The bill passed by a vote of 58 to 34.

Democratic Caucus Leader Rep. Scott Inman said in a press conference that the bill is a “solution searching for a problem.” Inman, D-Del City, said the legislation does not move the court system towards a more open and transparent system.

Inman said the legislation is an attempt by “some really powerful folks” in Oklahoma to try to control the Supreme Court.

“Our caucus is growing ever more frustrated with the majority party’s attempt to politicize the judicial nominating system more than it already is,” he said. “We’ve gone from a system in which the most qualified folks [can apply], not the most well connected but the most qualified…to a system which you could by the thirty-fifth worst attorney that applied, even if you’re a bad lawyer if you’re a good check writer to the right people you can be nominated to the bench.”

State Chamber President and Chief Executive Officer Fred Morgan said the bill represents an important step forward in the cause of judicial reform in Oklahoma

“The State Chamber has called for more accountability in how our appellate judges are selected for years,” said Morgan. “This measure ensures that an unelected body meeting behind closed doors doesn’t have undue influence over the third, co-equal branch of government.”

He added, “This is a big step forward in the name of transparency in our judicial system
In a meeting with members of the press, Hickman disagreed with Inman’s position on the bill. He said the current system is already politicized and his bill would work to fix a system that is not working.

Hickman said he believes the bill is a reasonable compromise that provides much needed reform.

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