Oklahoma is one of 39 states where voters have a role in selecting judges. On Nov. 8, 2022, Oklahoma voters will decide whether to retain four Supreme Court justices and five Court of Civil Appeals judges. In addition, voters in some counties will vote to elect district and associate district court 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 State Supreme Court Justices: Douglas L. Combs, Dana Kuehn, Dustin P. Rowe, and James R. Winchester. Voters will also cast retention votes for Judges Gregory Blackwell, John Fischer, Stacie Hixon, Thomas E. Prince, and Barbara G. Swinton 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 yes-or-no 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 that more closely resembles elections for other state and county offices. Oklahoma is divided into twenty-six judicial districts, which can have one or multiple 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 (when a seat becomes vacant, the governor may appoint a judge to serve the unexpired term). 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 midterm years, not presidential election years, so this year is the first time district judges will appear on the ballot since 2018, and they will not appear again until 2026.
Some district judicial elections are competitive with two candidates running. There are six districts with judicial elections that have more than one candidate running for one or more seats that will appear on the Nov. 8 ballot: District 5, Offices 2, 3, and 4 (Comanche, Cotton, Jefferson, and Stephens Counties); District 7, Office 14 (Oklahoma County); District 14, Office 12 (Tulsa and Pawnee Counties); District 17, Office 1 (Choctaw, McCurtain, and Pushmataha Counties); District 21, Office 1 (Cleveland, Garvin, and Mcclain Counties); District 23, Office 1 (Lincoln and Pottawatomie Counties). There are also two candidates for associate district judge in Beaver, Blaine, Canadian, Carter, Garvin, Latimer, McClain, Muskogee, Oklahoma, and Stephens Counties. These candidates will appear on the Nov. 8 ballot.
With the gubernatorial race, Congressional races, and state and local races 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. We must do the same on Election Day.
NOTE: This post was originally written by OK Policy Intern Forrest Farjadian in 2014 and has been updated periodically.