Judicial Reform

Group that selects Oklahoma judges loves Cuba?

Ray Carter | April 11, 2024

A legal group that has been granted significant control over Oklahoma Supreme Court appointments chose the oppressive Cuba regime as a site for a major event in 2017.

Under the current judicial-selection process mandated in Oklahoma, a governor cannot select his or her own judicial nominees based on merit. Instead, a 15-member Judicial Nominating Commission controls judicial appointments. Six of the 15 member appointments are controlled by the Oklahoma Bar Association (OBA).

In 2017, the OBA offered state attorneys six hours of continuing legal education (CLE) credit for going on the OBA President’s Cruise to Cuba. Attorneys are required to have a set number of CLE hours each year to retain their license to practice.

The OBA touted the Cuba cruise with rhetoric at stark odds with the reality of life on the island.

The OBA’s website at the time urged Oklahoma lawyers to join the cruise.

“Explore Cuba and experience the diversity of its riches like no other traveler before you,” the OBA website stated. “Cuba Cruise offers a unique opportunity to experience the country’s history, landscapes, and culture in a comfortable and seamless travel environment. This is an all-inclusive that moves. We spend our days experiencing the wealth of the region, endless beaches, and a view beyond compare.”

Michael Bates, a Tulsa commentator, criticized the OBA’s actions at that time, writing, “The OBA, which claims to stand for the rule of law, is planning a luxury trip to a country where law is used as a tool to suppress dissent.”

Bates noted that Freedom House’s report on Cuba that year warned, “Cuba is a one-party communist state that outlaws political pluralism, represses dissent, and severely restricts freedoms of the press, assembly, speech, and association.”

Freedom House noted that arbitrary detentions in Cuba had exceeded “9,000 during the first 10 months of 2016, the highest level in seven years,” and that political dissidents “are systematically harassed, detained, physically assaulted, and frequently sentenced to years of imprisonment for seemingly minor infractions.”

Bates also noted a similar report from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights placed Cuba on its human-rights “blacklist” for a host of reasons, including “lack of independence of the judiciary.”

The OBA is currently among the most prominent organizations opposing efforts to bring transparency to the process used to appoint judges to major courts in Oklahoma, including the Oklahoma Supreme Court.

Senate Joint Resolution 34, by state Sen. Julie Daniels and state Rep. Mark Lepak, would allow Oklahoma voters to eliminate the Judicial Nominating Commission (JNC) and replace it with the U.S. Constitution’s model for judicial selection.

The JNC selects up to three nominees for court positions, including the Oklahoma Supreme Court, in secret. The governor is currently required to select one of those three candidates and cannot consider any other qualified individuals.

The JNC does not hold public meetings. The group does not interview candidates in public. And the commission does not reveal how members vote on judicial nominees.

SJR 34 would allow voters to eliminate the JNC and replace it with a process where a governor can select any qualified individual, but legislative confirmation is required for that person to be seated. That would largely duplicate the process instituted by the Founding Fathers of the United States through the U.S. Constitution.

The OBA opposes SJR 34 and wants to preserve the JNC.

Public records show the designated membership of the JNC has given outsized control of judicial selection in Oklahoma to partisan Democrats.

Of the 15 members of the Oklahoma Judicial Nominating Commission, six are appointed by the Oklahoma Bar Association. No other attorneys are allowed to serve.

Public records show that 22 of the 32 individuals appointed to the JNC by the Oklahoma Bar Association from 2000 to today (nearly 69 percent) have directed most of their campaign donations to Democrats, including to presidential candidates like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Only one bar appointee to the JNC since 2000 overwhelmingly donated to Republican candidates.

Although the governor is allowed to name six “lay members” to the JNC, the governor can name only three individuals who are members of his or her political party, meaning even a Republican governor can appoint only three Republicans to the 15-member commission even as most or all bar association appointees may be partisan Democrats.

Insider Dealing, Judicial Misconduct, and Penis Pumps 

Perceptions of insider dealing have long plagued the JNC, and judges selected by the JNC have been involved in major scandals that have drawn national attention.

Judge Tim Henderson recently resigned after several female attorneys accused him of sexual assault. Henderson admitted to having had sexual relationships with two assistant district attorneys assigned to cases in his courtroom. The Court of Criminal Appeals has since had to vacate convictions due to Henderson’s misconduct.

Judge Donald Thompson of Creek County resigned in 2004. A petition for Thompson’s removal, filed by the office of the state attorney general, sought Thompson’s ouster because of his “repeated use of a device known as a penis pump during non-jury and jury trials in his courtroom and in the presence of court employees while serving in his capacity as district judge.” Thompson was later convicted, sent to prison, and disbarred.

Henderson and Thompson are among those representing what current OBA President Miles Pringle recently called the JNC’s “more than half-century proven track record of providing the governor with excellent judges and justices.”

Miles also claimed the JNC—which does not have public meetings or votes—is “more transparent” than the proposed new system that will involve public hearings and public votes on nominees.

SJR 34 currently awaits a vote on the floor of the Oklahoma House of Representatives.

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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