Understanding the Issues: Judicial Redistricting
The third branch of Oklahoma’s government, the Judicial Branch, deals with a number of important issues every year, from high-profile constitutional matters to life-changing criminal cases. Oklahoma’s judicial system is unique, and features a number of quirks which make the system specially tailored to our state’s needs. However, some features of the judicial system deserve to be reevaluated to determine whether they serve the people of the state in the best way possible. One feature of Oklahoma’s judicial system that has not been reevaluated in decades, the state’s judicial districts, tops the list of concerns for good government.
Why Do We Have Judicial Districts?
In 1967, a corruption scandal involving three members of the Oklahoma Supreme Court motivated the Legislature and voters to approve two constitutional amendments which brought sweeping reforms to the state’s judicial system. The most noticeable change from these constitutional amendments was in the method of selecting justices to serve on statewide courts. Whereas previously members of the Supreme Court, Court of Criminal Appeals, and Court of Civil Appeals had been elected in partisan elections, the reforms implemented a system known as the Missouri Plan, which was designed to limit the corruptible effects of campaigning from judges and increase judicial independence, while still maintaining a level of public accountability. Under the newly-adopted system, a nonpartisan commission made up of lawyers and non-lawyers known as the Judicial Nominating Commission (JNC) would review applications to fill vacant judgeships and forward the names of the three most qualified applicants to the Governor. From these three applicants, the Governor will appoint one person to serve for a six-year term. At the conclusion of their term, the judge will face a retention election wherein a majority of voters must vote to retain them in office in order to renew their term for an additional six years.
Although many other states utilize some version of the Missouri plan to select judicial officers, Oklahoma adds a component that only three other states have: geographic judicial districts. Included in the 1967 reforms was a provision that each Supreme Court seat could only be filled by a qualified elector from one of nine geographic districts within the state. The 1967 amendment provided that the Legislature could redistrict through the normal legislative process, but since the amendment passed, the Legislature has never redrawn the districts from their original, 1967 boundaries.
Since 1967, Oklahoma has experienced a number of geographic shifts that have caused major imbalances between the judicial districts. According the Oklahoma Bar Association, the districts range in population from 235,946 (6.29% of the state’s population) on the low end to 718,633 (19.16% of the state’s population) on the high end. The difference in the population of lawyers is even more stark. Two of the districts (those encompassing Oklahoma City and Tulsa) contain almost 70% of the state’s attorneys within them, while five of the nine districts have less than 4% of the state’s attorneys within each of them. This imbalance can cause problems to the system of judicial selection in the state. With some judicial districts having as few as 338 lawyers within them, including retired attorneys, it can be difficult to for the JNC to have enough qualified applicants apply in order to critically consider each applicant and narrow the candidate pool down to three qualified lawyers for the Governor to choose from. The Missouri plan utilized by the state counts on having enough qualified applicants for a position that the JNC and Governor can have a choice of multiple qualified applicants to consider on their merits. With such imbalances in the system, there can be an abundance of highly-qualified lawyers in the urban areas who are not eligible for seats that are already filled and a dearth of qualified applicants in underpopulated areas.
Why Have the Imbalances Lasted?
Unlike Legislative districts, which must be redrawn every ten years and must be fairly similar in population, there is no constitutional requirement that Judicial districts be regularly redrawn or be similar in population. Each of the statewide courts has a different number of districts—nine for the Supreme Court, five for the Court of Criminal Appeals, and six for the Court of Civil Appeals—making the process of redistricting more burdensome. Additionally, although judicial nominees must be nominated from within the districts, retention elections are held statewide, making this issue of judicial districts come up less often. All of these factors together have made judicial redistricting fall to the backburner of the Legislature’s priorities.
Although redistricting has not been an issue that has received a lot of attention in the past, Oklahomans have made it clear that they want systems of government to be reevaluated to make sure they are best designed to serve the people of the state. No effort to reform state government would be complete without evaluating the third branch of government, so the Legislature should look at ways to reform the state’s system of selecting judges to ensure our state’s highest ranking judges are of the highest quality and merit.