“That’s not good for Oklahomans,” Heated debate continues over how judges should be elected

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OKLAHOMA CITY - The battle over how judges are selected is heating up.

On one side, there are those who want to keep the commission that nominates them and, on the other side, there are those who want them elected.

The fight is happening right now at the State Capitol about House Bill 3162.

Supporters of the bill say it should be up to Oklahoma voters to elect our appeals court judges, but opponents say that's not a good idea to mix politics with our judicial system, citing political contributions and special interest groups would likely sway judges’ decisions.

Currently, six lawyers and nine citizens vet each appellate judge, then they give a list to Gov. Mary Fallin for the final decision.

Some lawmakers want to change that, where all appellate judges are elected.

“I believe all government officials ought to be accountable to the people, whether directly or indirectly, even those that wear black robes,” said Rep. Kevin Calvey, R-Oklahoma City.

The legislature created the Judicial Nominating Commission after three judges were kicked off the state supreme court in a bribery scandal.

Opponents of this new bill fear that could happen again by electing judges.

“You’re throwing us right back into the 1960s scandal, where you have a system that can be purchased with money, campaigns run with money and special interest groups take over,” said Cathy Christensen, an Oklahoma City attorney.

Some, like Christensen, are concerned special interest groups are already influencing the push for change in the legislature.

AJ Ferate, general counsel for the Oklahoma Republican Party, has been pushing the bill at the capitol.

“There is no check and balance against the judiciary as the current situation stands,” Ferate said.

The Oklahoma Bar Association is the organization that licenses and disciplines attorneys.

Leaders there have come out strongly against eliminating the commission, which is divided equally between Republicans and Democrats.

“When you have special interest groups controlling who sits on the bench, that’s not good for Oklahomans,” Christensen said.

The debate on the House floor was heated, and the vote was fairly close.

The bill is now headed to the Senate Judiciary Committee.