Oklahoma Senate approves single 20-year term for appellate judges, ends merit selection in state, allows governor to pick chief justice

I mentioned yesterday that March 11-13, 2013 was probably the single biggest 3 day period for merit selection in decades. Add one more merit-selection change and one more elimination to the list.

Oklahoma’s Senate yesterday approved SJR 21 and  SJR 24, constitutional amendments that would effective change the state’s merit selection system into a quasi-federal one. In addition, the Senate approved a plan to take away the state supreme court’s power to name its own chief justice.

SJR 21 would outright eliminate merit selection for the state’s appellate courts, allowing the governor to pick any qualified person for appointment. The appointment would be subject to review by the Judicial Nominating Commission, but that review would be just that, a review. The JNC would have no power to stop the appointment and no input prior. The JNC’s recommendation would be sent to the Oklahoma Senate, which would vote to confirm the governor’s pick. The Senate would then vote to confirm, or be called into special session once a quarter to confirm the nominee.

SJR 24 appears to contemplate SJR 21 NOT being adopted (i.e. that merit selection survives in Oklahoma). SJR 24 allows the state’s appellate court judges to sit for a single 20-year term. Currently appellate judges in the state are selected via a merit selection system and stand for yes/no retention elections every 6 years. Under SJR 24 the retention election portion of the state’s merit selection system would end and the judge would simply remain in office for 20 years. SJR 24 specifically does NOT alter the method of selection and specifies “No such person shall be required to be on a retention ballot during such twenty-year period.” However, were SJR 21 adopted, it could create a quasi-federal system (governor appoints, senate confirms, judge sits for long period of time) but because certain language in SJR 21 and SJR 24 are changed in different ways, it is unclear which would hold sway should both be adopted.

Moreover, SJR 24 is prospective and specifically deals with current appellate judges: they may serve their current 6 year term and 20 years on top of that.

SJR 24 must be approved by House before going on the 2014 ballot.

Finally SJR 22 would remove the Supreme Court’s power to name its chief justice. Currently 22 states allow the supreme court to pick it own chief, while another 7 operate on a strict seniority system (i.e. longest serving justice is chief). 12 states give the state’s governor some power to pick the chief, but no other state except Maryland allows the governor the sort of unrestrained power considered by Oklahoma. The other 11 states that give the governor some power over the pick of a CJ subject the choice to a merit selection process and/or confirmation by the legislature.