Lawmakers should clear up conflicting language about remaining in office following criminal pleas, convictions (Capitol Update)

It is unfortunate that Rep. Ryan Martinez, R-Edmond, has had to resign his seat in the Oklahoma House of Representatives, effective September 1. He is a serious-minded legislator who, as Vice-Chair of the House Appropriations and Budget Committee, had worked his way into a position that gave him the opportunity to use his considerable skills for the public good now and that could have launched him into even higher leadership positions in the future. He would not have termed out until 2028. 

The reason Rep. Martinez is resigning is that he recently pled guilty to a second offense under the state’s driving under the influence statutes and received a deferred sentence. A second offense is a felony. In this case, rather than driving, he was “in actual physical control” of a vehicle while intoxicated. He was observed behind the wheel of his vehicle sitting in the parking lot of a local restaurant. Upon successfully completing a one-year probation and other court obligations, the case will be dismissed with no felony conviction. 

Martinez issued an apology for his behavior saying, “I take full responsibility for my mistake and apologize to my family, friends, and constituents who have supported me for the last seven years serving House District 39. I have engaged in court-ordered obligations prior to my plea and faced my day in court without a conviction. I’m taking accountability for my actions and making efforts to move forward.”

The law is confusing on whether Rep. Martinez was required to leave office. Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, had sought an Attorney General’s opinion on the situation and was informally advised that pleading guilty and receiving a deferred sentence to the DUI offense did not disqualify Martinez from remaining in office. However, Gov. Kevin Stitt and his counsel arrived at a different conclusion and said so in their response in a case filed in the Supreme Court by former Rep. Mike Reynolds, R-Oklahoma City. 

Under Title 51, Section 24.1, an elected or appointed state or county officer or employee who is found guilty of any felony — or who pleads guilty or nolo contendere to an offense involving a violation of his official oath — is automatically suspended from office. When the case becomes final, the office is vacated if it results in conviction. It seems likely that under this statute, Rep. Martinez could remain in office. However, a separate statute, Title 51, Section 8 provides that an office shall become vacant “upon entering a plea of guilty or nolo contendere… for any felony or any offense involving a violation of his official oath.” 

The two statutes seem to conflict in that one sets up a procedure for suspension from office pending final outcome of the case in some cases, and the other provides for immediate vacation of the office after entry of a guilty plea. The case would have had to be resolved by the court using rather complicated rules of legislative interpretation, the outcome of which was likely unpredictable. 

Given the confusion and conflicting advice, Rep. Martinez decided to resign and move on. When I say it’s unfortunate that he had to resign, I mean just that. It’s just too darned bad all the way around. Too bad the incident happened. Too bad the law is confusing. The legislature should clear this up next session. Since people are people and sometimes make mistakes, elected officials, like anyone else, should know how to navigate the situation if they’ve made a mistake like this. 


Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1990. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

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