Heggy – System does not need ‘fixing’
By Traci Chapman
A scandal more than half a century old has opened the door for some legislators to propose changes in the way Oklahoma judges take the bench.
That’s a problem, attorney Suzanne Heggy says, and she’s not alone. Thursday night, a crowd of more than 100 people – attorneys, judges and the public – gathered at Canadian County Courthouse to talk about possible moves to revise appointments of judges. While the specifics of those proposals were not discussed, what was talked about were what Oklahoma’s judicial landscape used to be and what it is now.
“I’m all for transparency, for making things better,” Heggy said. “But to suggest that you need reform for reform’s sake is nonsensical to me.
“All we’re hearing is it needs to be different,” she said.
Reforms are not needed for a system attorneys and judges said is not broken. No Oklahoma judges have been accused of wrongdoing in Oklahoma; out of the 301 judges picked by the state’s current system, only one has been removed in that time, Oklahoma Bar Association President Renee DeMoss said.
“We have a system in Oklahoma that doesn’t need to be fixed, it needs to be protected,” she said.
That’s a far cry from Oklahoma’s judiciary of the 1960s, where corruption and bribery were the norm rather than the exception, Heggy and DeMoss said. In a system where partisan elections determined judgeships, without any examination or investigation of an individual’s character, finances or mental well-being, it was not clear if anyone could get a fair and impartial verdict, from the lowest court to the state’s highest bench, they said.
It was that environment that produced a scandal which would change everything. By the end of the decade, three Oklahoma Supreme Court justices would be disgraced, convicted of bribery, impeached and imprisoned, and the Oklahoma Judicial Nominating Committee would be born.
It was a move to keep party politics and personal popularity out of judiciary selections, DeMoss said. The commission, comprised of 15 members – both lawyers and lay people – take a hard look at judicial candidates. After completing an “exhaustive” application, those seeking the bench would have their lives laid bare – throughout extensive questioning by commission members, as well as a complete background check by Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, Heggy said.
Proponents to rumored proposed changes began a website to help non-attorneys and attorneys alike review the state judiciary and answer questions anyone might have. Although a work in progress, Heggy and DeMoss urged town hall attendees to refer to often.
The result is a system that has produced high-quality judges who work hard to apply and follow the law, no matter how difficult – or how much they may personally disagree with an aspect of it, DeMoss said.
“Their jobs are thankless, someone is always unhappy with a decision,” Heggy said. “That’s the nature of it, but that doesn’t mean reforms are needed to fix something that doesn’t need fixed.”