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Judges on the ballot in Oklahoma: what you need to know

Oklahoma is one of 39 states where voters have a role in selecting judges. Judicial elections usually don’t attract as much publicity as other races, so we’re taking a look at how judges are chosen, what’s at stake in the elections, and how you can learn about the candidates.

Oklahoma has three appellate courts, which are the courts that hear appeals of decisions by lower courts. The nine-member Oklahoma State Supreme Court has the last say in all civil matters, and it is often called on to decide important questions about the legality of acts of the legislature or executive branch under the state constitution. To keep its workload manageable, the Supreme Court hands off most cases to the Court of Civil Appeals, which consists of 12 judges divided into four panels. The five-member Court of Criminal Appeals is the court of last resort for criminal cases.

The justices and judges of these courts are appointed by the governor, who must select one of three candidates put forward by the Judicial Nominating Commission. Although their appointments may last for life, these judges stand for reelection every six years. This year, the voters will cast retention votes for the following State Supreme Court justices: James E. Edmondson, Yvonne Kauger, Nome Gurich, Patrick Wyrick (though he may be vacating the seat if his nomination for a federal judgeship is approved by the U.S. Senate), and Richard Darby. Voters will also cast retention votes for Judges Scott Rowland and David B. Lewis of the Court of Criminal Appeals, and Judges Bay Mitchell, Robert D. Bell, Kenneth Buettner, and Barbara G. Swinton of the Court of Civil Appeals.

Unlike other state races, appellate judges do not have opponents, and their party affiliations aren’t listed on the ballot. Instead, voters cast a simple up-or-down vote on whether the judge should stay in office. Because their elections are not competitive, Oklahoma does not allow appellate judges to raise campaign funds or establish campaign committees. No appellate judge has ever lost a retention election, and candidates for retention have tended to win with about two-thirds of the vote.

The Oklahoma Bar Association maintains courtfacts.org, where voters can learn about the justices and judges who will be on the ballot this year, read their biographies, and browse decisions they’ve authored. Ballotpedia.org also compiles information on judicial candidates’ education, background, and past decisions.

Some voters in Oklahoma will also see district and associate district judges on their ballot this year. Judges at the district level are elected to four-year terms by the voters of their district or county. If two candidates are competing for one seat, their names will appear on the November 6 ballot. If there are more than two candidates, their names will be on the primary ballot on June 26. If no candidate receives a majority, the two candidates with the most votes move on to compete in the general election in November.

With the gubernatorial race, congressional race, state and local races, and multiple state questions on the ballot this year so far, voters have a lot on their plates. It can be easy for judicial elections to get lost in the shuffle. But without party labels to help you decide, voting in a judicial election can feel like playing eeny, meeny, miny, moe if you haven’t done your research. We expect our judges to make informed, deliberate decisions. It’s important that we do the same on Election Day.

Max West is an intern with Oklahoma Policy Institute.