- Ada, Oklahoma

May 11, 2014

Draper seeks Associate District Judge's seat

Eric Swanson Staff Writer

Ada — Preston Draper’s legal resumé includes stints with the Oklahoma attorney general’s office and the small-town law firm where he currently practices.

Now, the 42-year-old Ada attorney is hoping to take his experience to the next level.

Draper is one of three candidates running for associate district judge this  year. He is competing against Lori (Loman) Jackson and Heather Hammond Wright for the right to replace Associate District Judge Martha Kilgore, who is retiring in June.

The three candidates will square off in the upcoming primary election, set for June 24. If the primary does not settle the race, the November general election will determine who replaces Kilgore.

The winner will take office in January.

The Ada News interviewed Draper on Friday about his background, his decision to run and other topics. Here are questions and answers from the interview, edited for clarity and length.

The Ada News: Describe your professional background for me, please.

Preston Draper: I went to the University of Oklahoma College of Law, graduated in 2003. From there, I became an assistant attorney general at the Oklahoma attorney general’s office and worked there until the end of December 2008.

While I was at the attorney general’s office, I spent most of my time with the criminal appeals division. And in most of that time, I was in what we called the death penalty unit, which dealt with all of the appeals on any case involving the death penalty in Oklahoma.

And so there, I practiced in front of the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals, the United States Supreme Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit.

Then I spent a year in what’s called the general counsel division at the Oklahoma attorney general’s office. In that role, I represented several different state agencies and helped to advise them, looked at personnel issues, contract issues, some licensing issues, those kind of things.

After that, I moved to Ada in January 2009. Came down and associated with Kurt Sweeney — he was a solo practitioner at the time — and practiced with Kurt for several years, doing just a general small-town practice where we did divorces and custody issues, contracts, wills, probates. All those types of things.

In January of 2011, Kurt and I became partners and also brought in as partners Jason Christopher and David Smith. We formed the firm of Sweeney, Smith, Draper and Christopher.

Last year, David Smith disassociated with our firm. He’s now a special judge in Creek County, I believe, and we renamed the firm Sweeney, Draper and Christopher.

In that firm, we’ve been doing, again, general small-town practice. I do a lot of bankruptcy cases in addition to the divorces and civil practice and those kinds of things.

That’s the places I’ve worked as an attorney. I’ve got additional sort of law-related experience in that I’ve been a presenter of continuing legal education for both the Oklahoma attorney general’s office and the District Attorneys Council. I’ve taught in the legal studies program at East Central, and I’ve taught the legal portion of the CLEET certification for prospective law enforcement officers.

And then I’ve served two terms as the Pontotoc County Bar president. I served in 2012 and 2013.

TAN: What made you decide to run for office?

PD: Well, I’ve been thinking about it for several years. I think that my judicial temperament — I guess my personal temperament is a judicial-type temperament.

I feel like I have the right type of experience and, especially, the right kind of relationships to make a good judge who has the ability to make tough decisions that need to be made as well as keeping good flow and process in the courts. ... We need to have somebody in our courthouse who helps us to get the work of law and justice accomplished.

TAN: So what made this a good time to throw your hat in the ring?

PD: I’ve been in

Ada for a significant amount of time. I’m well known among the practicing bar. My reputation is very good among the practicing bar.

With Judge Kilgore stepping down, I think it’s important that we have the best judges possible in our county. And so when things ended up as they did, I felt that it’s important for me to stand up and run.

All of us as attorneys, we want to have good judges. We want judges that we can rely on them making decisions based on the law and based on the facts that they see, rather than personality or some of those other non-legal issues. I thought if I want that for our county and I think that I’m the best qualified, then I owe it to the county to put forward and undertake the campaign to run and try to serve the county.

TAN: What, in your opinion, makes a good district judge?

PD: I think there’s a couple of things. One is experience, both legal and what I’d call life experience.

So you need to have seen a lot of different types of cases, had an opportunity to practice in a lot of different types of courts and have experience in different areas of the law. So you’ve got a broad background so that as cases come before you, you’re not so focused on specific issues that you miss other things.

I think we need judges with broad backgrounds that can take into account many different things as they’re applying the law to the specific cases that are in front of them.

I think that we need judges who are willing to make difficult decisions and willing to make those decisions in a timely manner. I think judges need to be deliberate and thoughtful in making their decisions, but they also need to understand that litigants —  parties that are in front of them with real controversies between them — need to have decisions so that life can go on and that they can make the best out of whatever decision comes down.

I also think we need judges who have a good relationship with the practicing bar in order to keep things flowing smoothly. We need judges who have management experience and an ability to be efficient in their work.

And I think I have all of those qualities.

TAN: Of those characteristics, which do you think is the most important? Why?

PD: Probably, the most important in a sitting judge is to have the broad background and legal knowledge so that when you’re confronted with these cases that come in front of you, you’ve got the experience and knowledge to be able to address them and to place the facts and circumstances where they belong and apply the law. Know where to look for the law, know what the law is so that you can make the most correct decision possible in the given circumstance.

TAN: What skills have you picked up during your career that would make you an effective judge?

PD: Especially with the docket that has traditionally belonged to the associate district judge, which deals with a lot of family and child issues. I’ve been what we call a guardian ad litem in many, many cases.

A guardian ad litem is an attorney that’s appointed by a judge to assist the judge in making recommendations and suggestions on how to rule in the benefit of — generally they’re children, but they can also be incapacitated adults. Because our judges can’t go out and do investigations and visit with all the different parties.

I’ve had a lot of experience with that. I’ve been appointed that both in Pontotoc County and also some of our surrounding counties, and a lot in the Chickasaw Nation District Court as well.

That has given me a lot of insight into the various competing interests in family law cases, whether they be private cases such as divorces and custody or state cases that involve things like deprived hearings or delinquent child hearings.

That experience has taught me a lot about the kinds of questions that need to be asked and thought about and how to make tough decisions, because the guardian ad litem is generally asked to make a recommendation to the judge as to where custody should be placed or what sorts of actions should be applied on behalf of either children or incapacitated adults. ...

But I’ve also had experience representing all those other parties as well. So if I’m privileged enough to be elected as judge, I come to this with a broad experience of representing all different issues that may come before the court.

And so, I feel like I’ve got that experience and temperament to be able to see the competing interests and to make rulings that are based upon the specific facts and law that would be applied to that specific case.

TAN: If you were elected, what kinds of cases would you handle?

PD: If the docket stays as it is, it deals with divorces and child custody issues, the mental health court, the juvenile drug court, the deprived child docket and the delinquent child docket and protective orders.

As well as, the associate district judge may end up with other cases — other civil-type cases where litigants are dealing with disputes over contracts or negligence complaints, those types of things.

I think it’s important that our associate district judge have a broad background, so that the judge is ready and able to assist and take whatever docket assignments that the district judge would give him or her.

That’s one reason why I think that my broad experience is very helpful in this position. Because I can step in and I’m certainly not expert in everything, but I’ve got experience in things, in most every type of case that would come before the court in our county and would be able to jump in feet first. ...

There’s no doubt we’re going to have a backlog, with Judge Kilgore retiring early. I anticipate that we’re not going to have a full-time judge for the next six months to replace her.

And so, we need a judge — whoever is elected — on January 1 that can jump in and start running and help clear some of that backlog. That will, I think, require some sharing of dockets to make sure that all of the cases that are outstanding can be heard as quickly as possible.

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