The original version of this post was authored by past OK Policy intern Forrest Farjadian. It was updated for 2016 by OK Policy intern Chelsea Fiedler.
Oklahoma is one of 39 states where voters have a role in selecting judges. On November 8, Oklahoma voters will decide whether to retain two Supreme Court justices, two Court of Criminal Appeals judges and three Court of Civil Appeals judges. Judicial elections usually don’t attract as much publicity as other races, so we’re taking a look at how judges are chosen, what’s at stake in the elections, and how you can learn about the candidates.
Judicial Retention Elections
Oklahoma has three appellate courts, which are the courts that hear appeals of decisions by lower courts. The nine-member State Supreme Court has the last say in all civil matters, and it is often called on to decide important questions about the legality of acts of the Legislature or executive branch under the State Constitution. To keep its workload manageable, the Supreme Court hands off most cases to the Court of Civil Appeals, which consists of twelve judges divided into four panels. The five-member Court of Criminal Appeals is the court of last resort for criminal cases.
The justices and judges of these courts are appointed by the governor, who must select one of three candidates put forward by the Judicial Nominating Commission. Although their appointments may last for life, the judges of each court stand for reelection on six-year terms, which are staggered so that some portion of the state’s appellate judges will face reelection in every even-numbered year. This year, the voters will cast retention votes for the following seven individuals: Justices James Winchester and Douglas Combs of the State Supreme Court; Judges Clancy Smith and Robert Hudson of the Court of Criminal Appeals; and Judges Tom Thornbrugh, John Fischer, and Larry Joplin of the Court of Civil Appeals.
Unlike other state races, appellate judges do not have opponents, and their party affiliations aren’t listed on the ballot. Instead, voters cast a simple up-or-down vote on whether the judge should be retained in office. Because their elections are not competitive, Oklahoma’s Code of Judicial Conduct does not allow appellate judges to raise campaign funds or establish campaign committees.
Judges need a simple majority to be retained. In the past, candidates for retention have tended to win with about two-thirds of the vote. No appellate judge has ever lost a retention election. The Oklahoma Bar Association maintains a website where voters can learn about the justices and judges who will be on the ballot this year, read their biographies, and browse decisions they’ve authored. Ballotpedia also compiles information on judicial candidates’ education, background, and past decisions.
District Judge Elections
District and associate district judges are selected in a process which more closely resembles elections for other state and county offices. Oklahoma is divided into twenty-six judicial districts, which can have one or several district judges, depending on the district’s population and caseload; in total, there are 73 district judges. In addition, each of the state’s 77 counties has its own associate district judge. District and associate district judges hear both civil and criminal cases — everything from traffic violations to name changes to homicides.
Judges at the district level are not appointed. Instead, they are elected to four-year terms by the voters of their district or county. As in retention elections, candidates for district judgeships are not allowed to discuss their party affiliation. But because district court elections are competitive, often with several contenders running against each other for the same office, candidates are allowed to fundraise and organize campaign committees. Like Oklahoma governors and other statewide elected officials, district judges are elected during mid-term years, not Presidential election years, so the next time district judges appear on the ballot will be in 2018.
With the Presidential race, Congressional races, multiple state and local races, and seven state questions on the ballot this year, voters have a lot on their plates. It can be easy for judicial elections to get lost in the shuffle. But without party labels to help you make a decision, voting in a judicial election can feel like a game of eeny-meeny-miny-moe if you haven’t done your research. We expect our judges to make informed, deliberate decisions. It’s important that we do the same on Election Day.