Special Legislative Session in Oklahoma in the Wake of Lawsuit Reform Ruling (Updated)

July 30, 2013

In early June, Oklahoma's supreme court struck down, in a 7-2 ruling, the Comprehensive Lawsuit Reform Act of 2009. In the wake of this decision, some legislators proposed a study of term limits for appellate judges. More recently, speculation has surfaced about whether judicial selection and tenure will be addressed at a special legislative session called by Governor Fallin. Although a Republican legislator wrote a letter warning judges around the state of rumors that there would be efforts to impose term limits and to eliminate the judicial nominating commission, a spokesman for the governor offered assurances that the only topic for the special session is lawsuit reform. A district court judge publicly expressed concern about the potential for such changes to politicize the judicial process. According to the judge, "There is already a process for the removal of a judge and that is an election."

Another state legislator recently weighed in on the situation, arguing that more meaningful checks and balances for the judiciary are needed. According to Republican senator Clark Jolley, Oklahoma's judicial branch “essentially self-selects its members,” resulting in an “unaccountable branch of government.” Jolley also noted that in the recent legislative session, the senate passed three measures aimed at curbing the courts—eliminating the nominating commission's role in initially screening judicial applicants and requiring senate confirmation; establishing a single, 20-year term for appellate judges; and allowing the governor to select the chief justice. Based on their timing, these efforts are not a reaction to an unpopular decision, Jolley says.