OK Judges, Attorneys Ponder Growing Discontent with Judiciary

Article excerpt

Increasing efforts to rein in judicial authority due to unpopular decisions in some states was a key point of discussion at the 102nd Oklahoma Bar Association annual meeting Thursday in Tulsa.

Harvard law professor Arthur Miller moderated a panel discussion titled "The Third Branch of Government: Out on a Limb?"

Carter County District Judge Thomas Walker said such movements are cyclical, presenting opportunities for officials, candidates and the press to pick on the judiciary.

Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Arlene Johnson disagreed that the latest effort is just another cycle. Johnson said the newest wave has presented problems in other states.

"I think it's growing," she said.

Johnson said she does not see any threat aimed at how Oklahoma judges render decisions, but some judges, particularly on the federal bench, do feel threatened. She said some people who feel "cheated by justice" feel the need to take action, and a few do.

Johnson also said judges become defined as activists if they hand down opinions with which someone disagrees, a remark met with applause.

Miller pointed out that the California Supreme Court was essentially "wiped out" due to the perception that its justices were soft on crime.

Oklahoma Supreme Court Vice Chief Justice James Winchester said he is encouraged that judges and justices on retention ballots drew 67 percent to 68 percent of the vote.

The six-person panel agreed that many Oklahomans are unfamiliar with their local judges, except in rural counties, and discussed ways to educate voters.

Eufaula attorney Deborah Reheard expressed concern with the 30 percent to 40 percent of Oklahomans who vote "no" on retaining judges.

Walker said those negative percentages are fairly constant, coming from individuals who vote no on many issues.

"They would vote against ice water," he said.

However, Tulsa attorney Jack Brown said there has been an increase in negative votes on judicial retention ballots.

Miller said that when he talks with federal judges, they express apprehension about what Congress can do to them by limiting the scope of their authority.

"If I was a state judge, I might be worried about jurisdiction stripping," he said.

Miller said that Congress has been stripping state courts' jurisdiction for years, including cutting back on their authority over class-action lawsuits and securities cases.

Tulsa County District Judge Greg Frizzell said the same has happened with employment discrimination cases.

However, Frizzell said he has not seen the same effort from the Oklahoma Legislature.

Miller said the new Kelsey Briggs law strikes him as a form of jurisdiction stripping, because it moves some authority in cases involving children from the courts to the Department of Human Services.

Kelsey Briggs died in October of 2005, her body covered with bruises. In a child welfare case involving alleged abuse, she died about four months after she was returned to her mother by the court. …