RULES OF THE OKLAHOMA
JUDICIAL NOMINATING COMMISSION
(Revised May 4, 2021)
OVERVIEW OF THE JNC
The Oklahoma Judicial Nominating Commission (JNC) was established in 1967 by an amendment to the Oklahoma Constitution. The JNC nominates the three most qualified candidates for appointment by the Governor to fill vacancies on the Supreme Court, the Court of Criminal Appeals, the Court of Civil Appeals, District and Associate District Judgeships (when vacancies occur outside the normal election process), and the Workers’ Compensation Court of Existing Claims. The JNC has jurisdiction to determine whether applicants for judicial office meet the relevant qualifications for the respective office.
The JNC has fifteen commissioners who serve without compensation. Nine of the fifteen commissioners are non-lawyers. These nine cannot be admitted to practice law in Oklahoma or have an immediate family member who has been admitted to practice law in any state. The Governor appoints six of the non-lawyer commissioners, one from each of the six congressional districts as they existed in 1967, to serve staggered six-year terms. Of the six non-lawyer commissioners named by the Governor, no more than three can belong to any one political party. The three remaining non-lawyer commissioners serve two-year terms as Members at Large. One is appointed by the Senate President Pro Tempore, one is appointed by the Speaker of the House of Representatives, and one is selected by the other members of the JNC. Of the three Members at Large, no more than two can be from the same political party.
Six of the fifteen commissioners are lawyers, one from each of the six congressional districts as they existed in 1967. The six lawyers are elected for six-year terms (staggered at two-year intervals) by members of the bar from their respective congressional districts.
The JNC was designed to be as free from partisan influence as possible. In addition to the limits on political party affiliation, the Constitution provides that: (1) sitting commissioners cannot hold any other public office by election or appointment or any official position in a political party; (2) commissioners are not eligible, while a member of the JNC and for five years thereafter, for nomination as a judge; and (3) commissioners may not succeed themselves.
MEETINGS AND LEADERSHIP
Meetings of the JNC may be called by the Chair or by a majority of the JNC. A majority of the JNC shall constitute a quorum. Meetings are scheduled at the most convenient date and time to allow maximum participation by Commissioners. Meetings may be by electronic means, telephone or in person. Absent exigent circumstances, interviews of applicants for a judicial vacancy are in person.
The JNC annually elects one of its members to serve as Chair and one to serve as Vice-Chair. Administrative assistance is provided by the Administrative Director of the Courts and staff.
The JNC typically holds a business meeting in conjunction with any interviews. At the business meeting, the commissioners are updated on the timeline for any pending judicial vacancies, along with any other business-related items that need to be brought before the JNC.
IMPORTANCE OF PUBLIC COMMENT TO THE JNC PROCESS
While the meetings of the JNC are open to commissioners only, information from the public on applicants for judicial vacancies is crucial to the process. For that reason, the JNC is committed to public notice and comment. The JNC will issue press releases or otherwise publicly announce, in whatever formats are available at the time, key stages of the process, including: (1) announcement of a judicial vacancy and the process for applying; (2) announcement of the names and home towns of applicants; (3) announcement of when interviews will be held; and (4) following the interviews, announcement of the three nominees being submitted to the Governor.
COMMISSIONER INDEPENDENCE AND IMPARTIALITY
Commissioners shall consider each applicant for a judicial office in an impartial, objective manner. Prior to any interviews, Commissioners shall not commit themselves to vote for or against any applicant. Likewise, Commissioners shall not solicit any other Commissioner to vote for or against any applicant; however, this does not prohibit a Commissioner from responding to a request from another Commissioner for his/her opinion of any applicant.
POTENTIAL CONFLICTS OF INTEREST
Prior to any interviews, a Commissioner shall disclose to all other Commissioners any prior or existing relationship with an applicant, including, but not limited to, any confidential, financial, personal, or familial relationship. A Commissioner, at the Commissioner’s discretion, shall disqualify himself/herself in any meeting of the JNC in which the Commissioner’s impartiality about an applicant might reasonably be questioned.
Absent exigent circumstances, Commissioners must be in attendance for all interviews for a particular judicial position to be entitled to vote on the applicants for that position. If a Commissioner is not in attendance for all interviews for a particular judicial position, the Chair will call for a majority vote of those Commissioners in attendance on whether that Commissioner will be entitled to vote on the applicants for that position.
To foster Commissioner independence and impartiality, voting will commence immediately following the last interview for a particular position, prior to any group discussion about the interviewees. Voting will be done by anonymous, written ballot and submitted to the Chair. The Chair will read the ballots aloud and tally the votes for each applicant. To be nominated, an applicant must have the affirmative votes of a majority of the Commissioners in attendance at the meeting. The Chair may call for one or more run-off votes, with any group discussion that may be necessary or appropriate, until the nominees are selected. The top three applicants will be submitted to the Governor as the three nominees.
OUTLINE OF THE JUDICIAL NOMINATING PROCESS
The following steps constitute the judicial nominating procedure:
- The Governor informs the JNC Chair of a judicial vacancy.
- The JNC advertises the judicial vacancy by electronically publishing a “Notice of Judicial Vacancy” in the Oklahoma Bar Journal and on the JNC website (www.oscn.net/jnc), providing the deadline for applications to be submitted. The Notice also directs applicants to the Instructions and Checklist for Submission of Judicial Application, as maintained on the JNC website.
- The JNC issues a press release concerning the judicial vacancy.
- Applicants file their applications with the Administrative Office of the Courts.
- If the JNC receives fewer than three qualified applications for a judicial vacancy, the JNC must re-advertise the vacancy to seek additional applications until at least three legally qualified individuals apply.
- If only three applications are received, based on a 2016 Attorney General Opinion, the JNC’s role is merely to determine if all three applicants are legally qualified for the position. If they are legally qualified, no further process ensues, and the three applicants are submitted to the Governor as the three nominees for that position.
- If more than three applications are received, the JNC publicly discloses the identity of all applicants for the vacancy to allow the public to provide comments on the applicants.
- The Administrative Office of the Courts provides commissioners: (a) the applications completed by the applicants themselves; (b) reports on any criminal or civil litigation involving the applicants as parties; (c) applicants’ disciplinary history with the Oklahoma Bar Associations and/or Council on Judicial Complaints; (d) applicants’ bar examination history; (e) applicants’ law school GPA, class rank (if available) and any law school disciplinary history; and (f) any other materials obtained in the course of the investigation process. In addition, members usually receive unsolicited letters of recommendation for applicants.
- The JNC makes an initial determination, in its discretion, as to which applicants will be interviewed in person. In most instances, all applicants will receive an interview. In rare instances, a vacancy will garner so many applications that the JNC will make a first “cut” of applicants to arrive at a reasonable number of applicants for the OSBI background investigation and JNC interview process.
- The Governor requests the OSBI to conduct full background investigations on all applicants to be interviewed by the JNC.
- Once the OSBI background checks are completed, the Administrative Office of the Courts provides those background checks to the commissioners.
- The JNC schedules a date for in person interviews and publicly discloses the date of that meeting so that any public comments on the applicants can be received before the interviews. Commissioners are required to be present for all interviews for a particular judicial position to vote on the three nominees for that position.
- Note: Applicants are discouraged from communicating directly with commissioners regarding the merits of their application. Questions regarding administrative matters should be directed to the JNC Chair or to the Administrative Office of the Courts.
- Immediately following the interviews, the JNC deliberates and selects the top three qualified candidates as nominees for the vacancy.
- The Chair immediately notifies the Governor of the three nominees, listing them in alphabetical but unranked order.
- The Administrative Office of the Courts delivers the nominees’ files to the Governor’s office.
- The Governor conducts whatever additional background checks and/or interviews he/she deems appropriate and appoints one of the three nominees within sixty days.
- If the appointment is not made by the Governor within sixty days, the Chief Justice of the Oklahoma Supreme Court makes the appointment.
These rules may only be amended by majority vote of all members of the Commission.