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 Gurich, Patrick 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.