Judicial Reform , Economy

Ray Carter | January 5, 2024

Report shows JNC system harming Oklahoma economy

Ray Carter

A new report from the State Chamber Research Foundation shows, indirectly, that Oklahoma’s Judicial Nominating Commission has resulted in the appointment of judges who have, on net, harmed the state’s legal climate and negatively impacted Oklahoma’s economic competitiveness.

The 2024 Oklahoma Scorecard, released by the State Chamber Research Foundation, is an annual index that evaluates Oklahoma’s competitive position compared to other states across metrics that are highly impactful on economic growth and prosperity.

The report’s section on the state’s legal climate ranks Oklahoma 34th out of 50 states, fifth out of seven regional states, and 10th out of 14 peer states (a group that includes Colorado, Utah, Iowa, Kansas, Wisconsin, Arkansas, Nevada, Tennessee, Indiana, Mississippi, Kentucky, Missouri, and Alabama).

“Oklahoma’s ranking is held back by its scores on the quality of its trial and appellate judges,” the report stated. “Oklahoma ranks 25th in Quality of Appellate Courts, 30th in Trial Judge Impartiality, and 31st in Trial Judge Competence.”

The quality of Oklahoma’s judiciary is in part a byproduct of the state’s use of a Judicial Nominating Commission (JNC) to appoint many judges, rather than following the system installed at the federal level by the United States’ founding fathers, which allows the executive branch to nominate judges with legislative approval required for confirmation.

In contrast, Oklahoma governors are not allowed to directly choose judicial nominees.

Instead, the 15-member JNC nominates three candidates to fill vacancies on the Oklahoma Supreme Court, the Court of Criminal Appeals, the Court of Civil Appeals, District and Associate District Judgeships when certain vacancies occur, and the Workers’ Compensation Court of Existing Claims.

The governor is not allowed to consider any other qualified candidates and is limited to only candidates chosen by the JNC.

Campaign-finance records show that Oklahoma’s system has given outsized power to Democratic campaign donors to select state judges even when Oklahoma voters have consistently elected Republicans as governor.

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.

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 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.

Only one bar appointee to the JNC since 2000 overwhelmingly donated to Republican candidates.

From 2000 to today, eight individuals who have chaired the JNC have been donors to Democratic campaigns.

In addition, 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.

Carrie Severino, president of the Judicial Crisis Network, has said that judicial-appointment systems like Oklahoma’s JNC are “how you might get a red or a purple state with a blue judiciary.”

The State Chamber Research Foundation report said that questionable rulings by Oklahoma judges, many of whom are selected by the JNC, have harmed the state’s economic competitiveness.

“Oklahoma’s appellate courts have consistently struck down or undermined legislatively enacted tort reform, including a cap on noneconomic damages nearly a decade after it was enacted, which has fueled the state’s slide in national legal climate rankings,” the 2024 Oklahoma Scorecard stated.

Members of the Oklahoma Legislature are expected to consider measures to abolish or significantly reduce the role of the JNC in judicial nominations, and instead shift to a system similar to that installed by the founding fathers of the United States, during this year’s session, which convenes in February.

Ben Lepak, executive director of the State Chamber Research Foundation, said the 2024 Oklahoma Scorecard is designed to help policymakers identify and address areas of weakness.

“We are tough graders in this report, so we certainly highlight areas where Oklahoma’s ranking lags,” Lepak said. “But that is the goal of the report—we can’t really address problems unless we know what the problems are in the first place.”

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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