Ray Carter | July 23, 2021
Stitt appoints new state attorney general
Gov. Kevin Stitt has appointed a former Trump judicial nominee, longtime Tulsa attorney John O’Connor, to serve as the attorney general of Oklahoma.
O’Connor said he would work “with our governor and Legislature to bring honest, outstanding governance to Oklahomans” and expressed a willingness to fight in court to reverse some high-profile U.S. Supreme Court rulings in cases ranging from Oklahoma tribal reservations to abortion.
In particular, O’Connor said he will seek to have the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in McGirt v. Oklahoma overturned or limited.
“This is a very important case where the U.S. Supreme Court, in my opinion, has either made a very serious error or at least has written an opinion in a way that can be construed—I think unintentionally—in a very broad way,” O’Connor said. “The case was supposed to be limited to major federal crimes and criminal prosecution. It’s being used by various groups to expand that into civil actions, such as whether the state has the authority to levy taxes.”
In McGirt v. Oklahoma, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Muscogee Nation’s reservation was never disestablished. While the ruling applied only to Muscogee land and questions of criminal prosecution under the federal Major Crimes Act, its precedent and basis could result in application to numerous other issues, such as taxation and regulation, and other courts have since applied it to the reservations of the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, and Seminole nations. The impacted areas include most of eastern Oklahoma and are home to 1.8 million people.
“If the question is will we oppose McGirt, the answer is yes,” O’Connor said. “If the question is will we seek the overturning by the Supreme Court of McGirt, the answer is yes. Will we try to work with the tribes? Absolutely. I have high regard for the tribes.”
When asked if he would support a challenge to Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that made abortion a constitutional right, O’Connor answered in the affirmative.
“If a Roe v. Wade case makes its way to the United States Supreme Court, then absolutely, I will want to file an amicus brief in that matter,” O’Connor said. “I think that we’ll pay the price for abortion as a nation. Sometimes the Supreme Court gets it wrong. We all know that. There are cases where they’ve held that people were less than human, or that their votes were less than a full vote. The Supreme Court is usually right, but sometimes even they make a mistake.”
O’Connor replaces Mike Hunter, who resigned mid-term. O’Connor said he will seek election to the position when it goes before voters next year.
In appointing O’Connor as state attorney general, Stitt said he found someone with both extensive legal expertise and a reputation for integrity.
“To become a top 10 state, we have to have all forms of government clicking on all cylinders,” Stitt said. “That’s why it was so important to me to find someone who was highly competent in the law, but more importantly I was looking for someone with high moral character who will do the right things for the right reasons and never for personal gain. As the state’s top law enforcer, we needed someone willing to fight and defend what’s best for all 4 million Oklahomans.”
“Just stop pretending that the ABA is a professional organization in this context. … They are a left-wing, ideological enforcer.” —U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton
O’Connor is an attorney at Hall Estill, a Tulsa-based regional full-service law firm. He has 40 years of experience in the field of law, focusing on civil litigation including complex commercial and general civil litigation. O’Connor has an AV peer review rating through Martindale-Hubbell and has been recognized as an Oklahoma Super Lawyer, one of Oklahoma’s Top Rated Lawyers, and a Best Lawyer in America.
In 2018, President Donald Trump nominated O’Connor to serve as a United States District Judge for the Northern and Eastern Districts of Oklahoma. That nomination was derailed after the American Bar Association (ABA) declared O’Connor “not qualified.”
Some officials seized on O’Connor’s ABA rating to criticize Stitt’s choice. Rep. Andy Fugate, D-Oklahoma City, tweeted, “The American Bar Association said this person was unqualified to serve as a judge.”
However, the ABA attack on O’Connor and other Republican judicial nominees was widely seen as grounded in political partisanship, not professional ethics.
U.S. Sens. Jim Inhofe, R-Tulsa, and James Lankford, R-Oklahoma City, both backed O’Connor’s nomination and criticized the ABA. In particular, both men noted O’Connor had been consistently given the highest ethical and legal ability rating possible in peer ratings.
“It’s not only disappointing that the ABA has given John O’Connor a poor review, but it is unfair that John was not allowed to respond to their criticism,” Lankford said at the time. “For a legal institution like the ABA to deny due process is hypocritical. In more than 35 years of legal practice, John has significant diversification of solid legal experience in Oklahoma. He is a highly qualified candidate for this judicial nomination and should be given a fair evaluation by the Judiciary Committee based on the merits of his work.”
The ABA’s attacks on conservative judicial nominees like O’Connor have drawn strong rebukes from conservatives.
In a 2017 speech, U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican and attorney, said the ABA had become a partisan organization that works to block Republican judicial nominees and rubber-stamp Democratic nominees, noting the stark contrast between the ABA’s actions during the Obama administration and the Trump administration.
“Just stop pretending that the ABA is a professional organization in this context,” Cotton said. “Whatever else the ABA may do in other contexts, in this context they are a left-wing, ideological enforcer. They’ve already deemed four of the president’s nominees unqualified after eight years of never calling a single Obama nominee unqualified. But then again, why should that surprise us? They were all Democrats and these are Republicans. The ABA is a democratically unaccountable special-interest organization.”
When the ABA declared Leonard Steven Grasz of Omaha was not qualified to serve as a federal judge, U.S. Sen. Deb Fisher, R-Neb., lambasted the organization during Grasz’ 2017 nomination hearing.
“After thoroughly examining the substance of the ABA’s report, it is evident to me that the ABA evaluation of Mister Grasz was a baseless political character assassination,” Fisher said.
Like O’Connor, Grasz had received the highest ratings in peer reviews before the ABA declared him unqualified. Fisher noted the two primary ABA evaluators who reviewed Grasz’s nomination had received numerous awards from Democratic Party affiliates or donated thousands of dollars to Democratic political campaigns, and said the criticisms they raised against Grasz were substantially based on anonymous sources.
“In their analysis, the evaluators did not cite a single concrete example in their purported clear, consistent pattern of criticism levied against Mister Grasz, and needless to say there was no corroboration from other sources,” Fisher said. “In fact, they failed to identify exactly what compromised this pattern or insinuation of bias.”
Fisher declared the ABA’s evaluation to be nothing more than a “biased, baseless” attack “filled with innuendo.”
It appears local officials similarly dismiss the ABA’s attacks on O’Connor. A range of officials issued public endorsements declaring their support for O’Connor’s appointment as Oklahoma’s attorney general.
“I have been very fortunate to know John for a number of years, and to be law partners with him for the last three years,” said James Milton, immediate past president of Tulsa County Bar. “He is a good person, a man of faith, and a tremendous lawyer. Our state will be well served with John’s appointment as attorney general.”
“For me it is important to have a person in that position who has high moral values and integrity. Mr. O’Connor, as Oklahoma’s chief prosecutor, has those qualities in spades,” said Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler. “I know him to be fair-minded, hardworking, and exceptionally competent as an attorney. For this next chapter in his life he will lead an excellent and hardworking staff with a skillset well suited for the protection of the citizens of the State of Oklahoma.”
“Good government requires good leadership, and the quality of the laws that we live under are greatly determined by the men and women that are leaders–and John O’Connor is the right leader and the most qualified to lead in such a critical role for Oklahoma,” said Barry Goldwater, Jr., a former member of Congress whose namesake father was the 1964 Republican presidential nominee and conservative icon.
O’Connor took the oath of office in a brief afternoon ceremony at the Oklahoma Capitol on July 23.
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.