Fixing Tulsa’s courts from within
District judge candidate Blake Shipley on the city’s path to better justice
Blake Shipley is a Tulsa native who graduated from Booker T. Washington High School. He completed law school at The University of Tulsa, and he earned an MBA at OSU-Tulsa by night while working in litigation by day. He first served as an assistant district attorney, later as an assistant public defender, and is now in private practice. He’s also running for district judge in Oklahoma District 14, which includes Tulsa and Pawnee counties.
Shipley has litigated over 30 trials, including criminal and juvenile deprived matters. He, his wife Terrie, and their two children live downtown in the Arts District where, according to his bio on Facebook, “he spends much of his discretionary income on Lone Wolf sandwiches.”
Damion Shade: What has led you to this transition in your life where you’ve decided to run to be a district judge?
Blake Shipley: It’s relatively good timing for my family and where I’m at with my career—being in private practice and having some extra ability and time to run for office. [. . .] I’m 34, which is relatively young to be running for office. I would say as a young person living in Tulsa, I’m frustrated with the lack of change and the slow speed of progress.
Shade: What is some of the progress you’d like to see in the criminal justice system in Tulsa?
Shipley: As I’ve been knocking doors this summer and fall, I’ve been talking to people about bond reform. It’s going to be one of the biggest issues this year with the federal lawsuit that “Still She Rises” filed. There are always issues, but I feel like there’s a lack of receptiveness from the district judges that are currently there in terms of listening to people in private practice, people at the DA’s office, people in the public defender’s office, people with the many philanthropic agencies we have in Tulsa trying to create progress. There are these voices that are trying to weigh in, but I don’t get the impression that they’re being listened to. I think the basic tenet is that when the government touches our lives, it shouldn’t leave certain groups of people disproportionately worse off.
Shade: Why do you think progress has been so slow in Tulsa, and what are the current district judges
Shipley: I never got the impression that there was anyone within that circle [of judges] that was willing to be the point person for making progressive changes that at least in my mind are no brainers. Bond reform is a good example of that. Moving away from the bond schedule they use now. Which is just a list of different charges and bond amounts that will be assigned if you’re charged with those crimes [and moving] towards a more individualized bond hearing.
There’s this opportunity for getting non-violent poor people out of jail who are just stuck there because they’re poor, and there’s an opportunity for saving a lot of taxpayer dollars because we have all of these people stuck in jail. So if we pay $35–40 million annually for this constant rotation of 1,500 inmates—the vast majority of which are just waiting for their case to be heard—and 70 percent of those people are non-violent, there’s just an enormous tax savings that’s available. We just need to move towards a system that gives a bond that’s more within financial reach but that is still significant enough to get people to show back up to court.
Shade: Who has most been hurt by these issues, and who are the folks who inspired your run to be a judge?
Shipley: If you look at the makeup of the jail, there’s a disproportionate number of people of color who are exactly the people who live in the district I’m running in. The vast majority of African Americans here live in North Tulsa. Obviously there is an issue with police presence in North Tulsa. That community is policed in a different way than South Tulsa. Those disparities are really tough.
I was really affected by a case I had a few years ago. I got a not-guilty on a case when I was a public defender, and that fellow waited in jail for a year and a half before we got to trial. There’s just that much of a backlog of cases. Sometimes when someone requests a trial it might be set a year out, and then the date might be moved forward a couple of times. There are a lot of other people waiting for trail. I really got the sense that this young man was telling the truth, and he was innocent. He still lost more than a year of his life to the system. It was great to see justice done eventually though, but sadly that doesn’t always happen.