Senate approves overhaul of Supreme Court districts
The Oklahoma Senate easily approved legislation Wednesday to overhaul the boundaries used to select state Supreme Court justices, as supporters argued that the changes would expand the pool of qualified candidates.
Under the legislation, approved 34-13, one justice would be appointed from each of the five congressional districts and four would be appointed statewide. The bill would go into effect in July 2020, meaning the two current vacancies wouldn’t be affected.
The bill also calls for the congressional districts to be used for selecting the five judges on the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals.
The House approved the bill last month. Gov. Kevin Stitt has expressed support for the changes.
Sen. Julie Daniels, R-Bartlesville, said the new system would provide a “broader, deeper pool of candidates each time a seat comes open.”
Currently, the state is divided into nine districts, with a justice chosen from each. The districts reflect the congressional boundaries of the 1960s. Proponents of changing them say the population has shifted dramatically in the last 50 years toward metro areas, leaving fewer people to choose from rural districts.
Only four people applied two years ago in a Supreme Court district in southeastern Oklahoma where there are fewer than 350 attorneys qualified, Daniels said. Meanwhile, the court’s senior justice, Yvonne Kauger, has been on the court since 1984, meaning no one in her western Oklahoma district has had an opportunity to apply to be a justice in 35 years.
The four statewide seats would expand the pool of qualified applicants and give more people a chance at being a justice, she said.
Opponents, mostly Democrats, said the current system was working well and that there was no hard evidence that more people would apply in the new districts. Senate Minority Leader Kay Floyd, D-Oklahoma City, said appellate judges were often chosen from the pool of lower court judges, meaning the number of attorneys in a particular Supreme Court district wasn't a major factor.
“There’s been no data whatsoever, there’s been no showing ... that we have problems getting people to apply for these Supreme Court positions," Floyd said.