Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Judicial Commission Controversy Continues

From The Tulsa World ~ An Oklahoma City lawyer filed suit Monday, challenging the constitutionality of the panel that recommends judicial nominees to the governor.

The lawyer, Jerry Fent, says all judges appointed after June 25, 2002, are suspect because the panel that recommends the nominees is unconstitutional.

In his suit, filed in the Oklahoma Supreme Court, he asks that five of the eight living justices on that nine-member panel recuse themselves from the case because their names were forwarded by the Judicial Nominating Commission. The panel is selecting people to recommend to the governor to fill the vacancy created by the death of Justice Marian Opala this year. Fent said the nominating panel's makeup is based on six congressional districts, but the state has lost a congressional seat. Therefore, the makeup of the Judicial Nominating Commission has not been corrected since 2002, he said.

Fent's suit also asks that Allen Smallwood and Rami Masri be removed from the Judicial Nominating Commission because they hold other offices. The commission's members can't include people who hold any other office, Fent's suit says. Smallwood is president of the Oklahoma Bar Association, and Masri is a school board member. Smallwood had no comment on the lawsuit. Masri could not be reached for comment.

The Judicial Nominating Commission has 13 members. Six are lawyers who are elected from each of the old six congressional districts by members of the bar of that district. The other seven members cannot be lawyers. They are appointed by the governor from the six congressional districts as they existed in 1967. The commission members select the 13th member.

The makeup of the panel could change because of the recent passage of State Question 752. It puts qualification restrictions on the nonlawyer members and adds two new members, one each appointed by the House speaker and the Senate president pro tem.

Fent is asking the court to toss out SQ 752 because it didn't correct the error in the number of congressional seats on which the nominating commission is based. He is asking the Oklahoma Supreme Court to issue a stay to prevent the Judicial Nominating Commission from making any more recommendations to fill judicial vacancies. A hearing on the stay is set for Dec. 27.

Controversy over who will appoint Opala's replacement has been ongoing. Gov.-elect Mary Fallin, a Republican, is set to be sworn in Jan. 10. She will succeed Gov. Brad Henry, a Democrat, who couldn't seek another term of office because of term limits.

Lt. Gov. Jari Askins, a Democrat, has applied for the high-court vacancy.

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