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How justice should be served

Does how we choose our judges and justices matter?

The legal wrangling that surrounded the botched execution of Clayton Lockett has prompted new questions about the best method to select the judges who make some of society’s most important decisions.

An Oklahoma County judge ruled on March 26 that Oklahoma’s secrecy statute for executions is unconstitutional. The Oklahoma Supreme Court, whose members are appointed and subsequently face retention elections, later ruled 5-4 to extend the stay, which caused one state lawmaker to call for the impeachment of the justices in the majority. However, the state’s highest court reversed itself on April 23, clearing the way for the lethal injection of Lockett, whose excruciating death on April 29 has drawn international attention.

While Lockett’s death has spawned renewed debate about the death penalty, it also points to the longstanding debate about how judges should get—and keep—their jobs, whether elections or appointments are best. 

Judges in the federal court system, where the appointments are for life, don’t have to worry about elections. However, most of the legal activity in the United States occurs elsewhere. The American Constitution Society reported in 2013 that state courts handle about 90 percent of the nation’s legal cases and that 89 percent of state court judges, including those in Oklahoma, face voters in some type of election.

In Tulsa County, voters will go to the polls this year to select judges for its district courts. Eight Tulsa County District Judge incumbents and one associate district judge drew no opposition in filing for office that ended April 11. Another district judge position to will go to former Tulsa mayor Bill LaFortune, the only candidate who filed to take over the retiring Tom Gillert’s seat. Two of this year’s five races will require a June 24 primary to thin the field. The other three races, with two candidates each, will to proceed straight to the November general election.

The Tulsa County races are non-partisan, meaning voters can’t make up their minds by simply filling in the blank next to the candidate who belongs to their political party of choice. Instead, citizens will be called upon to do some research in order to cast an informed ballot.

Some of society’s most important decisions are made from the bench, but judicial elections aren’t known to draw a crowd.

Still, statistics that would quantify a judge’s performance are difficult to unearth, and what data is readily available may be of little real value to voters trying to make up their minds. Tulsa County Court Clerk Sally Howe Smith said her office does monitor judges’ caseloads and the number of trials they hold, but such statistics do not take into account how the number of trials for a given judge are civil cases settled short of trial with the court’s encouragement, or when prosecutors and defense attorneys reach a plea deal. 

Smith said the clerk’s office does not track sentence length by individual judge in criminal cases. However, even if someone made such a study, it couldn’t indicate whether a judge is “tough on crime.” In the state court system, sentences and their length often depend more on juries and attorneys and their plea deals than judges.

Jill Webb, a candidate challenging incumbent Kurt Glassco in District 14, said she has tried to discover how many inmates have been put in the Tulsa County Jail over the past four years and by which judges. She was told such statistics are unavailable.

Webb said that beyond emphasizing one’s professional experience, candidates are limited in terms of what they can say when addressing potential voters.

“We’re not allowed to say what we would do in particular cases,” Webb said. “We can’t say we would be tough on crime. It’s very difficult.”

Longtime University of Tulsa law professor Gary Allison said he believes an elected judiciary is “problematic.” A judge’s most important task is to protect individual rights, a mission that can run counter to public opinion, he said. He mentioned the three Iowa Supreme Court justices who lost their positions in a November 2010 retention election, an apparent result of a 2009 ruling that legalized same sex marriage in that state.

By contrast, Tulsa-based U. S. Senior District Judge Terence Kern had no such professional worries in January when he ruled that Oklahoma’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, approved overwhelmingly by state voters in November 2004, violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Defenders of judicial elections claim that they let the public maintain some sort of check on the judiciary. Voters can go the polls in Oklahoma and most other states to express their displeasure with their state and
local judges.

Still, statistics provided by the Tulsa County Election Board show that voters do not always take advantage of the opportunity to choose who sits on the bench. Turnout for the July 2010 judicial primary in Tulsa County was only 22.83 percent and only 18.47 percent for the July 2006 judiciary primary, according to the board.

Tulsa County First Assistant District Attorney Doug Drummond, who is running for the spot on the bench currently occupied by Mark Barcus, acknowledged that judicial races typically don’t draw the sort of public interest that campaigns for political offices do. However, he said he emphasizes to voters the importance of such races and delivers the message that “it does matter” who they select. 

Briefly noted

Park and Wrecked // The beginning of May brought an end to a north Tulsa gathering place.

In the early morning hours of May 1, crews demolished the recreation center and swimming pool at B.C. Franklin Park, 1818 E. Virgin St.

The Park and Recreation Department has been tearing down such “inoperable” facilities in order to replace them with other features that will be cheaper to maintain: a “pavilion, sports court and water playground,” in the case of B.C. Franklin Park, according to a press release posted on the City of Tulsa’s website. 

The demolition did not sit well with Tulsa District 1 City Councilor Jack Henderson, who compared the early-morning demolition to the actions of a “thief in the night.” He said tearing down the facility at a time of day when no one would be present to protest the move was a “cowardly way to do it.”

The demolition of Franklin’s recreation center spawned a lawsuit in 2012 from those who wanted renovations and repairs instead of demolition. The six plaintiffs claimed in their lawsuit that tearing down the structure would “adversely impact the quality of their life and that of their children” and that Tulsa Parks officials have “blatantly ignored and refused to expend tax dollars allocated for the maintenance, upkeep and refurbishing of B.C. Franklin Center for more than a decade.” The lawsuit was later dismissed.

“I’ve yet to see anyone learn to swim in a splash pad,” Henderson said. –David Harper

OWNing the Riot // At the invitation of producers and writers for the OWN Network and the TCC Foundation, Tulsans were invited to Tulsa Community College Center for Creativity on April 30 to share stories about the Tulsa Race Riot. 

Writers with Oprah Winfrey’s OWN came to Tulsa to host a forum and gather stories and oral history as part of their work on a television mini-series, now in pre-production. 

The writers and their assistant spent the day touring Greenwood and the Greenwood Cultural Center. Then, they took the stage at TCC, opened the forum, and listened. Each speaker was given three minutes at the microphone. Nearly every speaker shared dissatisfaction with the suppression of certain events, concerned that the OWN Network was fictionalizing what’s been called the worst civil disturbance in American history.

“We will tell one story,” one of the producers said. They reminded the gathering that theirs was a fiction project, that certainly those gathered may not like every part of their representation of events. Nancy Miller, one of the producers said, “That’s the way of
the world.” –Jennifer Luitwieler