Judges on the Ballot in Oklahoma: What you need to know

Photo by julochka / CC BY-NC 2.0
Photo by julochka / CC BY-NC 2.0

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.

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The opinions stated in guest articles are not necessarily those of OK Policy, its staff, or its board. To see our guidelines for blog submissions, click here.

9 thoughts on “Judges on the Ballot in Oklahoma: What you need to know

  1. Oklahoma Supreme court and Appellate court have done a good job keeping the state constitution secure as politicians try their best to corrupt it VOTE YES FOR RETENTION OF THESE BRAVE MEN

  2. I talk to a lot of people about this issue and they all vote no. I have seen these guys violate Constitutional law as well as written law. They slant cases in order to affirm the lower courts so that the lower courts aren’t exposed for what they actually do. They ignore issues that are important unless it makes the media. Only then do they actually do their job so that the veil of what really happens behind closed doors isn’t visible.

  3. Just a note or two on some finer points: decisions from the Court of Civil Appeals are not controlling law unless they’re certified by the State Supreme Court, and the Court of Criminal Appeals is not the court of last resort since the Oklahoma Supreme Court can (and regularly does) grant certiorari and give decisions on controlling criminal law. This does does not diminish the importance of these courts one bit, though!

  4. I want to know the following details – and I’ve yet to find anyone that doesn’t feel the same. This information should be transparent so voters can make informed, responsible decisions!

    Administrative Ability
    Communication Skills
    Financial Responsibility
    Judicial Temperament
    Legal Knowledge/Ability
    Political Party
    Professional Experience
    Public Service Record
    Social Awareness
    Trial Experience

  5. I want to know how they made their decisions on the cases that they judge. I want to know how impartial they are. I want to know if they research their cases or if they just see someone whom is guilty until proven innocent. I don’t just want a bio. About the jobs they have done the schools they have went to the charity they contribute to or the church they attend. I want to know what make them think.

  6. Trying to find out how to vote on the Justices of the OK Supreme Court from District 2 to 7. Also Judges of OK Court of Criminal Appeals, Judges of the OK Court of Civil Appeals. I found all others in Tulsa World.

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