OKLAHOMA CITY — A LeFlore County legislator was recognized recently by the Oklahoma Bar Association as a “Friend of Justice”.
Rep. James Lockhart, D-Heavener, received a special commemorative medallion during the association’s annual meeting Nov. 14 in Tulsa. Lockhart was honored for his support of “a fair and impartial court system, free from bias, prejudice and partisan politics.”
Lockhart was among the majority in the House of Representatives who opposed Senate Joint Resolution 21, which was defeated on a 31-65 bipartisan House vote – by a 2-to-1 margin – on April 24.
SJR 21 would have modified the manner in which half a dozen members of the Judicial Nominating Commission are appointed.
The commission is intended to ensure that judges in Oklahoma are chosen on their merits, not on the basis of pure politics. The commission nominates candidates for appointment by the governor to fill vacancies on the state Supreme Court, the Court of Criminal Appeals, the Court of Appeals, district and associate district judgeships, and the Workers’ Compensation Court. The commission has jurisdiction to determine whether the qualifications of nominees to hold judicial office have been met.
The commission is comprised of 15 members: six attorneys and nine non-lawyers. Six of the 15 are appointed by the governor; one is appointed by the House Speaker and one is appointed by the Senate President Pro Tempore; six are elected by members of the bar; and the final member is selected by the other members.
SJR 21 focused on the six members of the Oklahoma Bar Association who are elected by other active members of the bar, one from each of Oklahoma’s six former congressional districts. The legislation would have allowed the Speaker of the House and the Senate President Pro Tempore to each appoint three of those members.
Opponents of the proposal argued that it would overly politicize the judicial process. It also was claimed that some Republican legislators and the State Chamber were piqued because the Oklahoma Supreme Court has overturned a few Republican measures, including last year’s tax cut measure.
Adversaries of SJR 21 also pointed to Article 4, Section 1, of the Oklahoma Constitution, which decrees: “The powers of the government of the State of Oklahoma shall be divided into three separate departments: the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial; and except as provided in this Constitution, the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial departments of government shall be separate and distinct, and neither shall exercise the powers properly belonging to either of the others.”
Lockhart’s objection was more basic. During a question-and-answer period and follow-up debate on SJR 21, he contended that it was unfair to use “a special legislative process to alter the makeup of the state courts,” yet the Republican leadership of the House “wouldn’t let me use a resolution to take money out of the state ‘rainy day’ fund to help people keep the heat on in their houses in the dead of winter.”
In House Resolution 1039, Lockhart recommended that some money from the state Constitutional Reserve Fund be allocated to provide financial assistance to Oklahoma families, children, schools and businesses that were coping with soaring propane prices attributed to a shortage. Lockhart introduced the resolution on Feb. 11, but it died without ever receiving a hearing in a House committee. The “rainy day” fund contains $535 million, ledgers of the State Treasurer reflect.
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