In Oklahoma, Democrat campaign donors pick Supreme Court justices
Ray Carter | November 28, 2023
For the better part of two decades, Oklahomans have voted by large margins to elect Republican candidates at both the state and federal level.
No Democratic presidential candidate has won a majority of votes in any of Oklahoma’s 77 counties since the 2000 election, and no Democratic candidate has won a statewide election in 17 years.
But through Oklahoma’s Judicial Nominating Commission (JNC), often called a “Missouri Plan” system, the governors selected by Oklahoma voters do not choose nominees for state courts, including the Oklahoma Supreme Court.
Instead, through the 15-member Judicial Nominating Commission, the financial backers of losing Democratic candidates help determine who becomes an Oklahoma judge.
“That’s what we find nationwide in states that have the Missouri Plan is that, typically, the nominating commission is well to the left of the state,” said Carrie Severino, president of the Judicial Crisis Network. “And so this is how you might get a red or a purple state with a blue judiciary.”
Oklahoma’s system of judicial selection is dramatically different from the system installed by the nation’s founding fathers for federal judicial appointments. That system allows presidents to choose judicial nominees while requiring Senate confirmation as a check and balance.
In Oklahoma, the system is far less transparent.
Oklahoma’s Judicial Nominating Commission 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. Research conducted by the 1889 Institute in 2019 found that Oklahoma’s JNC is among the most secretive in the nation. In other states with similar systems, open meetings and public votes are common.
And, unlike the U.S. president, the governor of Oklahoma cannot select his or her own judicial nominees. Instead, the Judicial Nominating Commission selects up to three nominees for a judgeship, and the governor cannot consider any other qualified individual.
Campaign-finance records show that Oklahoma’s system has given outsized power to Democratic partisans to select state judges even when their preferred candidates fail to win state elections.
Of the 15 members of the Oklahoma Judicial Nominating Commission, six are appointed by the Oklahoma Bar Association. Those six are the only attorneys allowed to serve on the commission. No other members with legal expertise are allowed to serve on the JNC. And records show JNC members appointed by the Oklahoma Bar Association have overwhelmingly been Democratic campaign donors.
There have been 32 individuals appointed by the Oklahoma Bar Association to represent six JNC districts who have served from 2000 to today. Of that number, 22 bar association appointees (nearly 69 percent) have directed most of their campaign donations to Democrats, based on information obtained from public filings maintained by the Oklahoma Ethics Commission and Federal Election Commission filings and state records that are searchable on the nonprofit Open Secrets website.
Other JNC members appointed by the bar divided their campaign donations more evenly between Republicans and Democrats or did not appear to contribute to candidates. Only one bar appointee to the JNC since 2000 overwhelmingly donated to Republican candidates.
In his first gubernatorial race in 2018, Gov. Kevin Stitt, a Republican, easily prevailed over Democratic nominee Drew Edmondson, winning by a margin of 12.1 percentage points. In 2022, Stitt easily won re-election, receiving 14 percentage points more than Democratic nominee Joy Hofmeister. In the two gubernatorial elections, the Democratic nominee received no more than 42.23 percent of the statewide vote.
“We need to abolish the JNC. They have outlived their usefulness and it is time to put in a constitutional system that actually picks judges that fit the people they serve.” —State Sen. David Bullard (R-Durant)
Yet under Oklahoma’s system, it is not Stitt who picks judges, but a committee whose members have included individuals who helped bankroll the campaigns of Stitt’s Democratic opponents, such as current JNC members David Butler and David Petty, who are both attorneys appointed by the Oklahoma Bar Association. Melissa DeLarcerda, a bar-appointed attorney who served on the JNC from October 2015 to October 2021, was also a campaign donor to Stitt’s 2018 Democratic opponent.
Among current members of the JNC, the gap between JNC members and the Oklahomans they are supposed to represent can be a chasm.
Petty is from Guymon and is the Oklahoma Bar Association’s JNC representative for the panhandle and most of northwest Oklahoma.
In 2018, Stitt carried Texas County, where Petty lives, with nearly 75 percent of the vote. In 2022, Stitt’s share of the Texas County vote increased to nearly 77 percent.
Margins have been even more lopsided in presidential elections in the county.
In the 2016 presidential election, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton received less than 15 percent of the vote in Texas County, and President Barack Obama also received less than 15 percent of the Texas County vote in his re-election campaign in 2012.
Records show Petty contributed to the campaigns of all four Democrats: Edmondson, Hofmeister, Clinton, and Obama. He has also made campaign contributions to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the DNC Services Corporation, the Democratic Party of Oklahoma, and the Oklahoma Democratic House Committee.
As a result, even though liberal Democrats may be a distinct minority in Texas County and much of the western Oklahoma area represented by Petty, that relative handful of voters may have more influence in picking Oklahoma judges than their conservative neighbors thanks to Petty’s appointment to the JNC.
Democrat campaign donors often chair commission that selects Oklahoma judges
The chair of the Judicial Nominating Commission is selected by the members of the JNC. Records show many of those who have served as chair of the JNC from 2000 to today are campaign donors to Democratic politicians.
Duke Halley, who served as chair of the JNC from October 2001 to October 2002, donated to Edmondson’s 2018 gubernatorial campaign, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the Oklahoma Democratic House Committee, Democrats of the Oklahoma State Senate, and the Democratic Party of Oklahoma,
Burck Bailey, who served as JNC chair from October 2002 to October 2003, donated to Bill Clinton’s 1996 presidential campaign, Al Gore’s 2000 campaign, John Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign, the Oklahoma Democratic House Committee, and the Oklahoma Democratic Party.
William E. Woodson, who served as JNC chair from October 2005 to October 2006, donated to Obama’s 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns, Edmondson’s 2018 gubernatorial campaign, Democrats of the Oklahoma State Senate, and the DNC Services Corp.
Robert C. Margo, who served as JNC chair from October 2008 to October 2009, donated to Edmondson’s 2018 gubernatorial campaign.
Allen M. Smallwood, who served as JNC chair from October 2010 to October 2011, donated to Edmondson in his 2018 gubernatorial race and Hofmeister’s 2022 gubernatorial campaign, and also gave money to Democrats of the Oklahoma State Senate.
Heather Burrage, who served as JNC chair from October 2012 to October 2013, has made numerous campaign contributions to Democrats, including to the gubernatorial campaigns of Edmondson in 2018 and Hofmeister in 2022. Burrage also gave money to the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party of Oklahoma.
Larry D. Ottaway, who served as chair of the JNC from October 2013 to October 2014, was a donor to the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton, as well as to Democrats of the Oklahoma State Senate and current Oklahoma House Democratic Leader Cyndi Munson of Oklahoma City.
Steve Turnbo, who served as JNC chair from October 2017 to October 2018, contributed to the campaign of Hillary Clinton, Democrats of the Oklahoma State Senate, and prominent Oklahoma Democrats such as Brad Henry’s 2002 gubernatorial campaign and Edmondson’s 2002 race for attorney general.
Severino noted JNC-style systems, in Oklahoma and elsewhere, often have “an incredible partisan tilt.”
“The situation in Oklahoma where the nominating commission is well to the left of the state is unfortunately very typical for this kind of system,” Severino said.
The Judicial Crisis Network advocates for “the Founders’ vision of a nation of limited government; dedicated to the rule of law; with a fair and impartial judiciary,” and supports efforts to “ensure only highly qualified individuals who share this vision comprise our state and federal courts and staff executive branch offices that administer and enforce the law.”
Severino said Oklahoma’s JNC fails that basic test.
“That’s one of the big problems with Missouri-Plan systems in general,” Severino said. “They’re marketed as choosing (judges) based on merit and this is ‘getting politics out of it.’ But this is not getting politics out of the system. It’s putting politics behind closed doors.”
State Sen. David Bullard, R-Durant, believes Oklahoma should shift to a system like the one installed by the nation’s founding fathers—allowing the executive branch to nominate judges with legislative approval required.
The secrecy of Oklahoma’s JNC, along with the fact that the group’s members often have a strong partisan tilt far to the left of Oklahomans that is out of line with voter preferences, shows the need for reform, he said.
“What they are doing is, very quickly, shedding light on the reason why we need to abolish the JNC,” Bullard said. “They have outlived their usefulness and it is time to put in a constitutional system that actually picks judges that fit the people they serve.”
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.