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

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 2018 by OK Policy intern Max West.

Oklahoma is one of 39 states where voters have a role in selecting judges. On November 6, Oklahoma voters will decide whether to retain five Supreme Court justices, two Court of Criminal Appeals judges, and four 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 State Supreme Court Justices: James E. Edmondson, Yvonne Kauger, Noma GurichPatrick Wyrick (though he may be vacating the seat if his nomination for a federal judgeship is approved by the U.S. Senate), and Richard Darby, who is finishing out the term of his predecessor, Joseph M. Watt. Voters will also cast retention votes for Judges Scott Rowland and David B. Lewis of the Court of Criminal Appeals, as well as Judges Bay Mitchell, Robert D. Bell, Kenneth Buettner, 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 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 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 mid-term years, not Presidential election years, so this year is the first time district judges will appear on the ballot since 2014, and they will not appear again until 2022.

If two candidates are competing for one seat, their names will appear on the general ballot on November 6th. If there are more than two candidates for one seat, their names will be on the primary ballot on June 26th, and if one of those candidates receives a majority of the vote, they automatically win the election (with the exception of certain district judge races, where the top two candidates will appear on the General Election ballot even if one receives a majority in the Primary – see Title 26, Section 11-112). If no candidate receives a majority of the votes cast, the two candidates with the most votes move on to compete in the general election in November.

There are five districts with judicial elections that have more than two candidates running for one or more seats and will be voted on in the June primary election: District 6, Office 1 (Caddo and Grady Counties), District 7, Offices 3, 5 and 10 (Oklahoma County), District 11, Office 1 (Nowata and Washington Counties), District 14, Offices 1, 3 and 12 (Tulsa and Pawnee Counties), and District 26, Office 2 (Canadian County).  There are also more than two candidates for associate district judge in both Kingfisher and Tulsa Counties, and both of these will be voted on in June as well. The Oklahoma State Election Board has compiled a list that allows you to see the candidates running for district judge and associate district judge in your district

With the gubernatorial race, Congressional race, state and local races, and multiple state questions on the ballot this year so far, 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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23 thoughts on “Judges on the Ballot in Oklahoma: What you need to know

  1. It would be very helpful to see the positions these judges have taken on various issues.
    Do their decisions typically support businesses, or the people who are suing them?
    What about lawsuits brought against some branch of government? (I’m thinking – not just environmental issues – but criminal and civil rights issues.) Do they generally favor actions of the executive branch? Do they uphold laws passed by the legislature that are contested on constitutional grounds?

  2. I also am looking for information about individual candidates for district judge. Can you help?

  3. The League of Women Voters offers excellent information on all races, including those for judges. Go to: https://www.vote411.org/ and type in your address. On the next page, click where it says “Get personalized information on candidates and issues”; that will get you to a page where you can see information on each issue, including answers submitted by candidates for each office to questions submitted by the League

  4. David – vote411 does not seem to have any details on any of the judges up for election. Note sure why, but I’ve been searching and can’t find a one-shop source for the judges as is available for the other candidates.

  5. I’m also frustrated with the apparent lack of information on the individual district judge candidates. Has anyone found a decency resource yet?

  6. I, too, am frustrated by how difficult it is to find information on the judicial candidates. Since I vote by mail I have seen in advance of June 26th that there are 4 candidates for my District/Office. Otherwise I likely would not know this until fronting up at the election site.

  7. It is imperative that we know where our judges stand on specific issues. Is there anyway, okpolicy.org can make that happen?

  8. Not only information about judges but all elected office candidates should have available information. The only information I see or can find is questionable it is from a biased source. I would like to see statements by each candidate as to their position not what they say about their opponent.

  9. All of the judicial candidates who provided info to the League were covered on my Personalized 411; you just have to input your address and the info is provided. In some cases, the candidates did not return their LWV questionnaires…the League can’t help that. Between this info and Googling those who didn’t respond, I was able to find info on all but one of the judicial candidates I will be voting on.
    In voting, I have always factored in candidates’ willingness to return LWV questionnaires. It’s not the only factor, of course, but if a race is a tossup…well, those candidates sure should have answered those short questionnaires.

  10. Why are these judges still allowing unverified robo signing affidavits from debt buyers like Midland Funding and the dissolved Equable Ascent. They have been sued in the higher courts and these debt buyers know that they are using the courts for one great big scam machine. These default judgments should be voided anytime the verified documentation is missing ! If I filed fraudulent documents in court I would be in big trouble ! But yet the Judge allows this and then gets angry because you show up and call him on his crap ! The Courts are colluding with the scammers because the poor in my county can not afford an attorney ! Shame on Oklahoma for allowing this to happen! ! I am standing up in Haskell County on September 12th. I will be making a Youtube video and one for my marketing network. Someone needs to stand up for the Public, because the Judge does not examine these cases and follow the law !

  11. Would like a list of all Oklahoma judges on the 2018 ballot along with their party affiliation.
    All people who run for election or for re-election should be required to note their party affiliations on all of their promotional materials and ads. Their party affiliation should also appear with their names on the ballot. The voter needs to know.

  12. I have found the best source of information is the candidates’ webpages by googling them. Also for a perspective from attorneys who appear in front of judges, I know Ok. County Bar Association does a survey. Judges and candidates for Judge are very precluded from speaking to issues as they are expected to be fair and unbiased and apply the law to the facts.

  13. Thanks Jordan your summary was helpful. I came up blank on the LWV site. OKPolicy, I’ve begged before, I contribute (and will continue to do so) and you simply must do more to have information on judges and more information earlier on primary candidates. I always vote absentee and it’s always too little too late 🙁

  14. Given the derogatory racial association of eeny-meeny-miny-moe I believe this phrase should not be used anywhere in politics or otherwise. It’s used in the last paragraph of this page. I liked this information very much so thank you for this.

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