Impeachment of state judges: OK- impeachment for court decision, PA- impeachment for judicial misconduct

Threats to impeach state judges have ramped up in the last month, but for two very different reasons.

The Pennsylvania House Judiciary Committee in late June unanimously approved HR 389, a resolution authorizing an impeachment investigation into Magisterial District Judge Kelly S. Ballentine. Judge Ballentine is facing criminal and judicial ethics charges that she fixed parking tickets issued against her (for which she was suspended from office) as well as other charges of misconduct related to her (unlicensed) shoe store and accusations she failed to pay sale taxes.

This marks the second time in two years the House has considered judicial impeachment. In 2013 a resolution (HR 159) would have impeached Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin for her criminal wrongdoing in in using state employees to help in political campaigns. Melvin was later convicted and forced to resign her office.

On the other side of the spectrum of impeachment threats were efforts lodged by the Oklahoma legislature after that state’s top civil court (Supreme Court) ruled that a Ten Commandments market placed on state Capitol grounds violated the Oklahoma constitution (h/t Gravel Grab for the articles). This marks the second attempt in as many years to impeach justices of the Oklahoma Supreme Court. In 2014 the House considered impeachment after the Supreme Court issued a stay of execution order in a death penalty case, one that the state’s governor refused to acknowledge (discussed here).

Oklahoma: Governor vetoes bill to end practice of tying salaries of executive branch officials to judges; Senate unanimously overrides

An Oklahoma bill discussed here and here to eliminate the decade’s old practice of linking salaries for executive branch officials to that of judges was vetoed by that state’s governor and promptly overridden by a unanimous Senate.

Under SB 549 the salaries of executive branch officials would have been set at specified amounts (e.g. “The Governor shall receive a salary of One Hundred Forty-seven Thousand Dollars ($147,000.00)) rather than linked (“The Governor shall receive a salary equal to the salary received by the Chief Justice of the Oklahoma Supreme Court…”) Additional increases would come from a new Board on Executive Compensation.

In her May 8 veto message Governor Mary Fallin objected to the practice of specifying salaries in statute.

Recent compensation reform initiatives have discarded the practice of codifying state employee salaries for good reason: fixing salary in statute tends to calcify salaries without regard to such pertinent considerations as inflation; the current fiscal health of the state; and most importantly, each particular employee’s performance.

The veto on SB 549 was sent back to the Senate where it was promptly overridden on May 15on a 36-0 vote. The override now goes to the House which had previously approved the bill 91-1.

Same week Colorado legislature votes to link executive branch officials’ salaries to that of judges Oklahoma votes to repeal similar system that stymied judicial salary increases

Colorado and Oklahoma’s legislatures have now taken entirely different directions in how to handle salaries for executive branch elected officials with Oklahoma moving to repeal its system of linking such salaries to judges and Colorado’s legislature voting in essentially the exact same plan.

The Colorado bill (SB 288) raced through the legislature in a single week when according to media reports dissenting House members were removed from the Appropriations committee. Under the plan the Colorado governor’s salary would equal 66% of that of the annual salary paid to the state’s Chief Justice. Other officials would have similar ties

  • Governor = 66% of annual salary of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court
  • Lt. Governor = 58% of annual salary of a County Court Judge in a Class B County
  • Attorney General = 60% of annual salary Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals
  • Secretary of State = 58% of annual salary of a County Court Judge in a Class B County
  • State Treasurer = 58% of annual salary of a County Court Judge in a Class B County

Moreover, the Colorado plan goes even farther than Oklahoma’s and links the legislature’s salaries to that of judges as well

  • Member of General Assembly = 25% of annual salary of a County Court Judge in a Class B County

SB 288 was introduced April 30, cleared the Senate on May 5 and the House on May 6.

The exact day Colorado’s SB 288 was introduced, Oklahoma’s Senate was giving final approval to a plan to repeal a similar linkage system. Oklahoma SB 549 as amended by the House was approved by the full Senate on a 36-0 vote on April 30. If signed by the governor it would end a decade’s long practice of linking executive salaries to that of judicial officials

  • Governor = salary of Chief Justice of the Oklahoma Supreme Court
  • Lt. Governor = salary of associate District Court Judge of county with population between 10,000 and 30,000
  • Attorney General = salary of Presiding Judge of the Court of Civil Appeals
  • Superintendent of Public Instruction = salary of District Judge
  • Corporation Commissioners = salary of associate District Court Judge of county with population over 30,000
  • State Treasurer = salary of associate District Court Judge of county with population over 30,000
  • State Auditor and Inspector = salary of associate District Court Judge of county with population over 30,000
  • State Insurance Commissioner = salary of associate District Court Judge of county with population over 30,000
  • Commissioner of Labor = District Court Special Judge

Because of the linkages the Oklahoma legislature had refused to grant judicial salary increases for years, voting against changes proposed by the state’s Board on Judicial Compensation. Because of the linkages last year saw only Oklahoma District (general jurisdiction court) judges getting an increase (and thanks to the linkages local district attorneys as well), resulting in trial judges making more than appellate judges whose salaries were tied to the Governor, Attorney General, and other state-level officials. That topsy-turvy situation was discussed here. The new Oklahoma plan would delink the salaries and create a special commission to recommend executive salary levels.

 

 

Oklahoma: House and Senate vote to end practice of tying salaries of executive branch officials to judges

The Oklahoma House and Senate have voted to repeal laws that tie the salaries of executive branch officials to judges. Versions of SB 549 were approved 42-0 in the Senate in March and in the House 91-1 on April 20. The House and Senate differ on the creation of a new Board on Executive Compensation that would function in much the same way as the state’s Board on Judicial Compensation functions: Board recommendations become binding unless override by the legislature.

Oklahoma’s process of tying salaries of executive officials to judges started in the 1990s. The governor of Oklahoma for example “shall receive a salary equal to the salary received by the Chief Justice of the Oklahoma Supreme Court.” The result (discussed here) has been years of rejected salary increases recommended by the state’s Board on Judicial Compensation for judges by the legislature because the increases would have also raised other salaries.

The linkages culminated in the topsy-turvy situation in 2014 when the state’s Governor and other executive officials (whose salaries were tied to appellate judges) announced they did not want raises. The legislature then increased trial court judges only, making Oklahoma the only state in the U.S. where trial judges made more then their appellate counterparts.

SB 549 instead sets specified amounts (“The Governor shall receive a salary of One Hundred Forty-seven Thousand Dollars ($147,000.00)”) and provides the new Board on Executive Compensation can increase them.

The bill now goes back to the Senate to approve or reject the House amendment creating the Board on Executive Compensation.

 

Oklahoma: bill to remove judges from office who recognize same sex marriage licenses advances

An Oklahoma plan first discussed here to punish judges and clerks of court by withholding their salaries if they recognize same sex marriage licenses has advanced out of a House committee.

HB 1599 as approved by the House Judiciary and Civil Procedure committee yesterday provides

No employee of this state and no employee of any local governmental entity shall officially recognize, grant or enforce a same-sex marriage license and continue to receive a salary, pension or other employee benefit at the expense of taxpayers of this state.

Should a judge do so, they would be subject to removal from office

If a judge violates this act, the judge shall be removed from office pursuant to Section 1 of Article VIIA of the Oklahoma Constitution.

That particular section does not refer to the state’s impeachment of judges (Article VIII); perhaps because it is not 100% clear the state legislature could impeach a local trial judge. Instead, the bill uses the state’s judicial disciplinary body (Court on the Judiciary) as the method of removal for “judges of any court.”

HB 1599 also purports to make the law itself immune from constitutional challenge by prohibiting state judges from overturning it

The courts of this state shall dismiss any challenge to any portion of the Preservation of Sovereignty and Marriage Act, with an award of costs and attorney fees to defendants.
HB 1599 now goes to House Rules committee or could be sent directly to the House floor.

Oklahoma: Legislator who led effort to impeach OK Supreme Court for death penalty ruling now pushing for special court to hear death penalty appeals; court’s makeup and selection left entirely to legislature

Anger and an impeachment effort over a decision last year by the Oklahoma Supreme Court to stay an execution may result in the creation of a new court to hear only death penalty appeals and with the method of selection and terms of judges to that court left entirely to the legislature.

Oklahoma already stands alone (along with Texas) for having two separate courts of last resort to handle cases: a Supreme Court (civil) and a Court of Criminal Appeals. Last year this caused some controversy when the state’s Supreme Court issued a stay of an execution, complete with threats by the Governor to ignore the stay and articles of impeachment filed against the justices directly onto the House floor.

This year the leader of the House impeachment effort has filed HJR 1022 a constitutional amendment to create a third court of last resort: a Court of Capital Appeals. The court would “have exclusive appellate jurisdiction in capital murder cases.” Even more interesting is how the judges would be elected. The current constitution requires appellate vacancies to be filled by the governor from a list of names provided by the state’s Judicial Nominating Commission and subject to yes/no retention elections. HJR 1022, however, allows the legislature unlettered discretion in terms of the court’s composition, terms of judges, and how those judges are selected/appointed.

HJR 1022 has been prefiled for the 2015 session.

Oklahoma bill would deny judges salaries, use judicial disciplinary system to remove judges who recognize same sex marriage licenses

At least one member of the Oklahoma House is now prepared to join fellow legislators in South Carolina and Texas willing to prohibit salaries to judges and other state or local employees who recognize same sex marriage licenses. However, the Oklahoma plan goes further and contemplates outright removing judges from office.

Using language that is an almost word for word copy of the Texas bill (HB 623), Oklahoma HB 1599 provides (Update 1/23/15 10:51 with finalized language)

No employee of this state and no employee of any local governmental entity shall officially recognize, grant or enforce a same-sex marriage license and continue to receive a salary, pension
or other employee benefit at the expense of taxpayers of this state.

The Oklahoma bill, however, goes further than either the South Carolina (which only threatened the judge with forced recusal cases involving same sex marriage licensees) or Texas (which was silent) and specifically makes such recognitions an offense subjecting the judge to removal from office

If a judge violates this act, the judge shall be removed from office pursuant to Section 1 of Article VIIA of the Oklahoma Constitution.

That particular section does not refer to the state’s impeachment of judges (Article VIII); perhaps because it is not 100% clear the state legislature could impeach a local trial judge. Instead, the bill uses the state’s judicial disciplinary body (Court on the Judiciary) as the method of removal for “judges of any court.”

§ 1. Removal of judges from office – Compulsory retirement – Causes.

(a) In addition to other methods and causes prescribed by the Constitution and laws, the judges of any court, exercising judicial power under the provisions of Article VII, or under any other provision, of the Constitution of Oklahoma, shall be subject to removal from office, or to compulsory retirement from office, for causes herein specified, by proceedings in the Court on the Judiciary.

(b) Cause for removal from office shall be: Gross neglect of duty; corruption in office; habitual drunkenness; commission while in office of any offense involving moral turpitude; gross partiality in office; oppression in office; or other grounds as may be specified hereafter by the legislature.

Like the Texas and South Carolina bills, Oklahoma HB 1599 also purports to make the law itself immune from constitutional challenge by prohibiting state judges from overturning it

The courts of this state shall dismiss any challenge to any portion of the Preservation of Sovereignty and Marriage Act, with an award of costs and attorney fees to defendants.

HB 1599 has been prefiled for the 2015 session set to start on February 2.