Shawn Ashley, Quorum Call

(QC) The House rejected a resolution Tuesday that calls for a vote of the people to eliminate the Judicial Nominating Commission and implement a modified federal judicial appointment system in Oklahoma.

Rep. Mark Lepak, R-Claremore, said SJR0034 would end the practice of judges and justices being chosen behind closed doors at Judicial Nominating Commission (JNC) meetings. “This will create a more transparent process,” said Lepak.

SJR0034, by Sen. Julie Daniels, R-Bartlesville and Lepak, refers to a vote of the people the question of the selection of judicial officers. It would allow the governor to nominate and appoint all judicial officers with advice and consent of the Senate and the House of Representatives when a vacancy in any judicial office occurs if approved by voters. It allows the Governor to call the Legislature into special session to advise and consent on any such nomination if the legislature is not in session. It provides that confirmation requires an affirmative vote of a majority of the members elected to the Senate and an affirmative vote of a majority of the members elected to the House of Representatives. It repeals Section 3 of Article 7-B relating to the Judicial Nominating Commission.

The bill came over from the Senate requiring only Senate approval of the nominations. The House Rules Committee adopted a committee substitute that added the House’s participation in the nomination approval process.
Lepak said Daniels had not said how the Senate felt about the added language. Lepak said it was in keeping with the current process where the House and Senate have appointments to the JNC.

“This brings the Legislature into the process in a way we’ve not had before,” Lepak added.

Lepak largely rejected the idea that the resolution was the result of any particular decision, although he did later list several Oklahoma Supreme Court decisions that had undone Republican legislation.

Rep. Anthony Moore, R-Clinton, asked if the resolution was a pro-life resolution and whether the term abortion appeared in it. Lepak said it was not specifically a pro-life measure and the word abortion did not appear in it. The question appeared to be a veiled reference to an email sent earlier Tuesday by House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka. The email indicated the vote would be scored as a pro-life vote by organizations such as Faith Partners and Oklahomans for Life, as well as other groups.

McCall advises members to vote on behalf of their districts, but he offered a caveat: “Be warned a no vote will have negative implications for you in the present and future as it has cost previous colleagues their reelection or election to other offices. I have seen it happen with a single mailer.”

Moore debated against the bill and was the only Republican to do so. Moore argued the state was too far removed from the judicial scandal that led to the creation of the JNC, which was considered a model for other states. Moore suggested the resolution was the result of recent court rulings and that the proposal would “…throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

Moore also warned the resolution, if approved by voters, could have dire effects in rural communities. He noted associate district judges are responsible for all juvenile proceedings and an unfilled vacancy in one of those offices would delay adoptions, among other legal proceedings.

Moore suggested the proposed change also would make it more difficult to find qualified individuals who want to be judges.

“I don’t want to DC my Oklahoma,” Moore said.

Rep. Forrest Bennett, D-Oklahoma City, warned of the potential loss of institutional knowledge within the judiciary if the resolution was approved and okayed by voters.

Rep. Monroe Nichols, D-Tulsa, called the proposal “dangerous.” Nichols said a frequent criticism of the Legislature was that politics often get in the way. “Eventually, it will be in the way of judicial appointments,” he said if the proposal was adopted.

Rep. Andy Fugate, D-Oklahoma City, noted the proposed constitutional amendment addressed the nomination process but it did not address the Legislature’s confirmation process. Ultimately, said Fugate, the resolution was about “giving away the keys to the kingdom” to the governor’s office.

Lepak reiterated his view that eliminating the JNC and replacing it with a gubernatorial appointment and legislative approval process would increase transparency in the selection of judicial nominees. He called the model “clean and simple.”

The resolution failed 36-60. Lepak held the resolution on a notice to reconsider. He must exercise it by the end of the legislative session Thursday.

Fugate attempted to amend the resolution. His amendment would have required judicial nominations be approved a three-fourths vote in each chamber, putting them on par with revenue raising measures, said Fugate. The amendment was tabled on a motion by House Assistant Majority Floor Leader John Pfeiffer, R-Mulhall.

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