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

Photo by julochka.
Photo by julochka.

This post is by OK Policy intern Forrest Farjadian. He is a senior at the University of Tulsa studying political science and Spanish.

Oklahoma is one of 39 states where voters have a role in selecting judges. On November 4, nine appellate court justices will appear on the statewide ballot for retention. Voters in many parts of the state will also be asked to select district and associate district judges in nonpartisan, competitive elections. 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. 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 nine individuals: Justices John Reif, Tom Colbert, and Joseph Watt of the State Supreme Court; Judge Gary Lumpkin of the Court of Criminal Appeals, and Judges Jerry Goodman, Jane Wiseman, Deborah Barnes, Keith Rapp, and Brian Goree 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.

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 71 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.

Primaries are held for races in which three or more candidates are running for the same position. If one candidate receives a majority of the vote in the primary, then he or she wins the seat. Otherwise, the two candidates with the most votes in the primary will move on to the general election. This year, a majority of candidates are running unopposed, so they’ll be elected automatically without appearing on the ballot. Only five races drew enough candidates to require a primary.

You can quickly find out which judges will be on your ballot this November with the Election Board’s Online Voter Tool. Local newspapers often publish profiles of judicial candidates, and judgepedia.org compiles information on candidates’ education, background, and past decisions. In competitive races, candidates’ endorsements and contact information can usually be found on their campaign websites.

There are four state offices and two U.S. Senate races on the ballot this year, so voters have a lot on their plates, and it’s easy to let judicial elections get lost in the shuffle. But without party labels to help you make a decision, voting in a judicial race 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.

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

  1. Read the article on the voting for District Judge with interest. Here in Comanche and Stephan Counties we have old fashioned partisan mud slinging battles going on for all three of the judicial positions. Based on the sign clutter, there seems to be no end to the money being contributed and spent. Politicos,ex-judges and even car dealers are endorsing candidates.

    Its all the lawyers’ fault. The reform judge election procedures adopted fifty years ago seemed to work well until recently. Lawyers started gathering and publishing lists of attorneys supporting such and such judge started to appearing. Money pots supporting this or that judge started popping up regularly. If the politicos keep up the pressure, we will end up with scandals just like in the forties and fifties.

  2. Are “Special Judges” ever required to win an election or are they term limited or simply above any realistic recourse? Special Judge Lynn McGuire was appointed as Special Judge in OK County in 2009 but has never been on a retention ballot, as far as I can tell. Curious if anyone knows. Thanks for the article!

  3. In response to the comment by “Scott on August 14th, 2015) is you question about Special Judge Lynn McGuire not being on a retention ballet a question for or against Judge McGuire? The comment above any realistic recourse if I am not misunderstanding seems to ring true with my thoughts. If you are a fellow sufferer, please post so we may communicate further. Thank you.

  4. Kathy, please feel free to contact me at highmisconduct@gmail.com. Most definitely not a fan of either the re-election process in general or Judge McGuire specifically. Though, as I’m sure you can appreciate, don’t want to cause myself more problems, assuming I’ll end up in front of her again.

  5. I am a fellow sufferer of judge Lynne McGuire. I also know marketing and website stuff so looking to find ways to get her unelected or fired. She is so biased, racist and does not follow her code of conduct.
    My email is curt.timsah@gmail.com

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