New Poll Shows Support for Judicial Elections

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RECENT polling shows strong voter support for changing the way judges are selected in Oklahoma. A recent report naming one Oklahoma court a “judicial hellhole” will only add fuel to that fire.

Polling done by North Star Opinion Research shows 79 percent of Oklahomans now support direct election of judges, while 16 percent support the commission system currently in place. In that system, the Judicial Nominating Commission — made up of six lawyers appointed by the Oklahoma Bar Association, six nonlawyers named by the governor and three members named by state legislative leaders and the commission itself — nominate three candidates for a major court vacancy. The governor must then select one of those three nominees and cannot consider other possibilities.

The share of Oklahomans who prefer direct election of judges has been substantial for several years, but has also increased over time. In 2013, only 74 percent
preferred direct election.

If a constitutional amendment is submitted that junks the commission system and instead allows voters to elect all state Court of Appeals and Supreme Court judges, North Star found 72 percent of Oklahoma voters would support the amendment. There was broad support for that change among Republicans,
Democrats and independents. Just 21 percent of voters were opposed.

Direct election of judges drew far more support than another alternative in which the governor could choose judicial nominees and submit them to the Judicial Nominating Commission to be rated either “qualified” or “not qualified.” The nominee would then be subject to confirmation in the Oklahoma Senate, which is similar to the process used to fill federal judicial vacancies.

That proposal, which basically duplicates the process laid out in the U.S. Constitution, drew more support than Oklahoma's current commission system, but still polled below 50 percent.

To put a twist on William F. Buckley's quip, it appears Oklahomans would rather have their judges selected by the first 200 names in the phone book than by lawyers and politicians.

That's driven in part by opposition to some notable court rulings, in particular the Oklahoma Supreme Court's decision to order removal of a Ten Commandments monument from the state Capitol. North Star found 71 percent of Oklahoma voters opposed that decision, including 61 percent who said they “strongly disapprove” of the ruling. Even 64 percent of Democrats were opposed.

But public distrust also is driven by other factors, such as The American Tort Reform Foundation's 2015-2016 Judicial Hellholes report, which identifies courts that are the “most unfair” in their handling of civil

Pottawatomie County District Court Judge John G. Canavan Jr. landed on the list after awarding more than $7 million in attorney's fees in a national class-action lawsuit filed in his court despite having no Oklahoma plaintiffs. (That decision was reversed by the state Supreme Court.) Canavan also made a ruling that critics argue could eliminate Oklahoma's workers' compensation system, which would force injured workers to go to court before receiving any payments for injuries.

Unlike Oklahoma Supreme Court justices, district judges are already elected, which is one reason we've cautioned against rushing to change the appointment process for major courts. But egregious rulings and poorly explained decisions by any judge at any level help to fuel public cynicism, making voters less receptive to tinkering and more open to overhaul of the judicial selection process.