Judicial Reform

Conflict-of-interest concerns arise in judicial nomination

August 2, 2019

Ray Carter

A member of the Judicial Nominating Commission was a financial contributor to the political campaign of a judge who applied with the JNC to fill a vacant Oklahoma Supreme Court seat, records show.

The JNC is a 15-member group charged with screening applicants for some of Oklahoma’s highest courts. In the case of Oklahoma Supreme Court vacancies, the JNC recommends three nominees and the governor is not allowed to consider appointing anyone else, regardless of other potential jurists’ records.

Melissa DeLacerda of Stillwater is one of six attorney appointments to the JNC. She is a past president of the Oklahoma Bar Association.

The JNC recently screened seven applicants for the vacant District 1 seat on the Oklahoma Supreme Court. One of the applicants was Linda Thomas of Bartlesville, who currently serves as the district judge for Nowata and Washington counties. Like DeLacerda, Thomas is also a past president of the Oklahoma Bar Association.

According to the Oklahoma Ethics Commission, DeLacerda contributed $500 to Thomas’ judicial campaign in 2018. The $500 was provided in two installments made in May and June 2018, less than a year before Thomas sought the Oklahoma Supreme Court position and went before the JNC.

In the June 26, 2018 primary, Thomas received 42 percent of the vote in a three-way race, narrowly trailing Curtis DeLapp, the incumbent, who received almost 46 percent.

Subsequently, in August 2018, Oklahoma Chief Justice Douglas Combs filed a petition accusing DeLapp of violating several laws and provisions of the Oklahoma Constitution. The petition sought DeLapp’s removal. As part of a settlement, DeLapp later resigned from office and suspended his campaign.

Thomas was sworn in as the new district judge for Nowata and Washington counties in January 2019, and then sought the Oklahoma Supreme Court position in April.

In other instances where the appearance of conflict-of-interest problems existed, JNC members have recused themselves from the process of reviewing judicial applicants.

One of the other applicants for the District 1 seat on the Oklahoma Supreme Court was attorney Sarah Lepak, whose mother Linda Lepak serves on the JNC. A posting on the Oklahoma State Court Networks web site specifies, “Commissioner Linda Lepak has recused from all matters involving the vacancy for Supreme Court District 1. Please do not send letters of recommendation or communicate with Ms. Lepak in any way regarding this vacancy.”

No similar note of recusal is posted regarding DeLacerda, despite her financial support of Thomas.

The JNC is not subject to open-meeting requirements and its work is conducted in secret.

Thomas was not among the three names forwarded to the governor by the JNC.

Repeated efforts to obtain comment from DeLacerda were unsuccessful.

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