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Bench Memos

NRO’s home for judicial news and analysis.

T. W. Shannon Panders to Lawyers



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As Ammon has mentioned before, the state of Oklahoma is in the midst of a debate over whether to abandon the Missouri Plan method for selecting its judges. The Oklahoma Supreme Court has been on a tear recently, and calls for selection reform intensified in June when the court struck down an omnibus tort-reform bill. Conservatives in the state seem to be coalescing around the idea that the Missouri Plan should be abandoned, but it is less clear that Republican politicians in the state have the desire or the will to take very serious action.

Regardless of what Oklahoma’s political class thinks, it is clear that Oklahomans support reform. In August, the Federalist Society commissioned a poll on the issue that reveals overwhelming support for a constitutional amendment that would give Oklahomans the right to directly elect their judges:

The survey of 500 registered Oklahoma voters, conducted by North Star Opinion Research, shows that respondents by a 3-to-1 margin preferred having the appellate judges and justices elected. The poll, with an error rate of 4.4 percent, showed that 74 percent of those taking part in the poll preferred having the judges elected and 22 percent favored the commission.

The poll showed 69 percent of those surveyed would support an amendment to the state constitution that would abandon the existing commission and instead allow voters to elect all appellate judges and justices. It showed 25 percent opposed it.

It also showed that 76 percent of those responding favored term limits for appellate judges and justices while 22 percent opposed them.

Such proposals drive the far left bonkers, and not surprisingly, the Soros-funded group Justice at Stake sprung into action almost immediately to caution Oklahoma’s leaders against taking that step.

Sadly, it seems that Oklahoma’s speaker of the house, T. W. Shannon, has decided to carry water for those Soros groups and their allies in both the progressive community and the organized bar. According to the Tulsa World, Shannon opposes the direct election of judges and thinks that “We need to be thoughtful about [judicial selection]. . . . We certainly need not to be cavalier about it.” Apparently it is “cavalier” to suggest that Oklahoma’s supreme court judges fall under the same system as Oklahoma’s trial court judges, and the supreme court justices of 22 other states.

To his credit, Shannon seems to recognize at least the symptoms of the problem, noting that “the trial bar association has had a stranglehold on this state for 100 years.” But while he added that “it’s time we broke that,” he seems to reject the only real long-term solution: elimination of the Missouri Plan commission that allows unaccountable special interests to capture the judicial branch. If he thinks that term limits or a mandatory retirement alone are enough, he’s got a very limited view of history and the way unaccountable commissions are captured.

My hunch is that the speaker simply doesn’t know what he is talking about. Perhaps he hasn’t been briefed on the empirical evidence relating to judicial elections, or perhaps he has been briefed but prefers an approach that allows him to be all things to all people. Whatever the case, if he has a strategy for solving the root of the problem, it isn’t apparent and it probably isn’t something conservatives ought to get too excited about. I hope I’m wrong. 



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