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
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
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
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
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. …