Judicial Removal Week: Judge Thomas Bartheld (OK)

Efforts to remove Judge Thomas Bartheld, an Oklahoma state District Court Judge, started even before the 2010 session began. Media reports of legislators planning his ouster made the news in June 2009 after Judge Bartheld sentenced a man who had pled no contest of raping and sodomizing a 5-year-old girl to 20 years in prison, 19 of which are suspended. The case made national headlines, with Bill O’Reilly mentioning the judge by name on his show seven times. Judge Bartheld, however, noted that “The district attorney, child’s family, advocates and the defendant all agreed to this [plea bargain].”

HR 1065, filed in August 2009 for the 2010 session, asks the Trial Division of the Court on the Judiciary to assume jurisdiction and institute proceedings for the removal of Judge Bartheld from office. Additionally, the same legislator has introduced HJR 1079 granting the state legislature the authority to review, amend, and otherwise change criminal sentences handed down by judges and HJR 1072 allowing the state legislature to impeach District Court Judges like Bartheld. Oklahoma’s current constitutional provision only allows for the impeachment of “the Governor and other elective state officers, including the Justices of the Supreme Court… [and]…Judges of the Court of Criminal Appeals.”

A poll conducted in January 2010 by the Tulsa World, however, finds most Oklahomans are unsure of these actions. While 57% find Oklahoma judges are “too lenient” in criminal cases, the state divided 45/46% on whether it should be easier for the state legislature to remove judges.

Judicial Councils

Judicial Councils vary from state to state, ranging from advisory bodies to formal policy makers and setters. Three states are wrestling with the possibility of eliminating these bodies.

Virginia’s HB 240 would eliminate the Council and transfer its responsibilities to the Supreme Court or the Executive Secretary of the Supreme Court (the official title for the state court administrator).

New Hampshire, on the other hand, is seeking to save its Judicial Council. In 2009, the state’s legislature passed as part of its appropriations bill a provision (144:87) automatically ending “all non-regulatory boards, commissions, councils, advisory committees, and task forces in state government created by statute or administrative rule” on June 30, 2011 unless new authorizing legislation was approved. HB 1689 would keep the Judicial Council in operation.

Tennessee’s Judicial Council is facing a similar automatic sunset. Statutorily, the Council expired June 30, 2009 and is currently in its one-year “wind down” phase. HB 1016 and SB 374 would extend it until June 2017 while HB 1102 and SB 373 would grant it only until June 2010. HB 1102 was approved on a 90-5 vote on June 3, 2009 while the Senate version was deferred until 2010.