As with Groundhog Day, attacks on the Oklahoma judiciary are expected annually

Marmots have a set annual day when they do the same thing as the year before. Punxsutawney Phil leaves home, assesses the climate, makes his prediction and returns to his cage. The term “Groundhog Day” refers to the same events occurring over and over again – the same repetition, endlessly – as the film “Groundhog Day”.

The Oklahoma judiciary and third branch of government suffer the same “Groundhog Day” fate when the Oklahoma legislature is in session. Relentless attacks on the independence of the judiciary are repeated ad nauseam annually to destroy the right of every Oklahoma citizen to a fair and impartial judiciary and to licensed, regulated attorneys.

Earlier this term, the Oklahoma Senate quietly passed SJR43, which proposes sending a constitutional amendment directly to the people’s vote. The proposed change completely changes Oklahoma’s current court system, court elections, the appointment of judges, and the regulation of attorneys.

The Oklahoma Judicial Center, pictured July 23, 2019, is the seat of the Oklahoma Supreme Court, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals and the Judiciary of Oklahoma.

Why are you only now hearing about this far-reaching proposed change? The lack of outrage, education and opposition to SJR43’s ludicrous proposals was due in part to repeated failures by the Oklahoma House that the bill was “horrible” and assurances from lawmakers that SJR43 would never move forward. Unfortunately, confidence in these assurances gave way to complacency among those defending the third branch of government when it came to voicing opposition. To everyone’s surprise, the House put SJR43 on the agenda without holding a hearing in committee, as is normally required by law. The House passed SJR43 and sent it back to the Senate, which asked for a tastier version.

For those of us who remember Oklahoma’s history and the Oklahoma Supreme Court bribery scandal, no version of SJR 43 would be palatable. We remember exactly why the current system is built the way it is and why it shouldn’t be changed. The impact of this year’s “Groundhog” proposals would devastate the Oklahoma courts, judiciary and legal practice.

As written, SJR43 proposes: abolish the Judicial Nominating Commission, a body created to address judicial and legislative problems exposed by the bribery scandal; remove all current appeal judges at the end of their current term; make court elections partisan; remove the Supreme Court’s ability to discipline lawyers; and remove the rules on lawyers not appearing in court, which happens to be most lawyers!

As written, the amendment would allow an attorney who does not practice court, such as an estate planning attorney or a corporate attorney or a prosecutor, to embezzle your money, harm your family or your business, and leave no remedy to the Discipline attorney or warn future victims. On the legal side, the amendment would require all judges to disclose their political affiliation, which is currently prohibited by the Oklahoma Code of Judicial Conduct, Title 5 of the Oklahoma Statutes.

Please contact your representatives in the House and Senate. Challenge them to bring this year’s version of a “legislative groundhog” back into the cage without further attention.

Cathy Christensen served as President of the Oklahoma Bar Association in 2012. She is a native of Pennsylvania and intends not to be disrespectful to groundhogs.

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