A major issue on the horizon is whether to limit the terms of office of members of the Oklahoma Supreme Court. Currently, justices are appointed for a life term and residents vote to retain judges every six years. Since the retention system was put into place in 1969, no judge has been removed through the process.
Last session, Senator Clark Jolley and Representative Jason Murphey proposed a constitutional amendment that would limit a judge’s tenure to twenty years. The measure passed the Senate but was not heard in the House Judiciary Committee. The 70 people who had the pleasure of listening to Speaker of the House T.W. Shannon’s speech on ECU’s campus this month learned that the issue is not dead. Speaker Shannon seems to be a strong proponent of judicial reform, explaining that when the Oklahoma Supreme Court acts to strike down legislation, they act as a “superlegislature.” For example, the legislature recently passed workers' compensation reform. The Supreme Court struck down the law because it didn’t meet certain requirements such as the single-subject rule. Consequently, the legislature held a special session to pass a new set of workers' compensation laws.
Oklahoma Supreme Court Justice Noma Gurich also spoke on ECU’s campus recently. It should come as no surprise that, as a sitting judge, she would be skeptical of judicial term limits. Gurich cited two practical concerns. First, a larger turnover in judges would lead to more changes in the law. When the law changes, people can’t count on it. Second, attorneys who become judges must basically quit their law practices when they go to the bench. If a lawyer becomes a judge but can only serve for twenty years, it is possible that he or she may have to return to private practice. This would be difficult for judges and would reduce the number of people who would applying for judicial vacancies.