The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Opinion

February 3, 2014

Other Views: Giant step backward

— Among the thousands of bills introduced for the second session of Oklahoma’s 54th Legislature was the usual spate of ideas, ranging from practical to preposterous.

 Liberals will laugh at a proposal by state Rep. Sally Kern, R-Oklahoma City, to protect the rights of second-graders to chew their Pop-Tarts into the shape of Berettas, and conservatives will chuckle as state Sen. Connie Johnson, D-Oklahoma City, makes her annual attempt to legalize marijuana. But members of both parties should shudder at the abominable bill filed by House Speaker T.W. Shannon, R-Lawton, that would effectively eradicate Oklahoma’s separation of powers.

House Bill 3380 would create a nine-member Board of Judicial Review. Members would handle performance evaluations of the state’s judiciary, from district court judges through Supreme Court justices. They would rate judges on everything from the clarity of their written opinions to the quality of their legal decision-making. The board would poll attorneys, litigants and others for their opinions on the judge’s handling of their case.

The members would also be required to take a “retain,” “do not retain,” or “no opinion” position when judges are on a retention ballot. Most voters would follow that recommendation, making the panelists the de facto electors.

The governor, president pro tem of the Senate and speaker of the House would each appoint three members to serve five-year terms. The only rule would be that the appointees could not be practicing lawyers or jurists. That means nine people with no legal training could be critiquing the quality of legal decisions throughout the state, and they would wield a sizable sword.

House Bill 3380 would create a human resources department run by the Legislature to oversee the judiciary. Not only is it duplicitous of the smaller-government-is-better Shannon to create a new, unnecessary agency complete with support staff, it takes the philosophy of a constitutional democracy back more than 300 years and spits on Article III of the U.S. Constitution.

The notion of judicial independence goes back to 1701’s Act of Settlement in England, and French philosopher Montesquieu, who greatly influenced Alexander Hamilton and other Founding Fathers. An independent judiciary was critical to the Constitution’s framers. It remains critical to a free society.

In recent months, China’s top court and security chief have urged the Communist Party to move toward true judicial independence amid a wave of political reform. What a tragedy it would be for the Legislature to move Oklahomans the opposite direction.

—The Journal Record, Oklahoma City, Okla.

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