No, that’s not the name of next season’s Kardashian family spinoff, but rather the possible future of Oklahoma judicial retention elections as scripted by the State Chamber of Oklahoma.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce became a shrewd and dominant legal player at the turn of the millennium, transforming formerly quiescent, low-dollar state Supreme Court elections into high-profile, contentious slugfests. How? By pumping millions of dollars into these contests and running “soft on crime” attack ads against candidates it felt were insufficiently pro-business. This strategy was devious, provocative and successful.
Now the State Chamber is following this lead and executing its own courtpacking plan.
First, it funded an effort giving non-lawyers a decisive majority over lawyers on the state Judicial Nominating Commission, a move similar to giving smoking, couch-potato laypeople control over selecting heart surgeons.
Next, it financed and publicized a study rating the Oklahoma justices’ tendencies to broaden or restrict civil liability.
Attorneys and justices assailed it as intimidation veiled by superficial analysis.
Intimidation is a strong word, so let’s extend Chief Justice John Roberts’ famous metaphor of justice as umpire who simply calls balls and strikes: The State Chamber promoting this report is an aggressive coach spitting in the ump’s face and kicking dirt on his shoes. The chamber argues it is merely supplying helpful information. Granted, judicial races are notoriously low in information. I confess that, as an undergraduate, I voted for a judicial candidate mostly because her name was Janet Jackson.
But information quality is important.
As the study’s methodology is opaque and not reproducible, it raises the eyebrows of political scientists and the hackles of many concerned about judicial independence.
The next step the state or national chamber might take is launching attack ads against disfavored justices. This would certainly heat up these elections — maybe even to a boiling point, as in Ohio where one justice once wrestled down and choked another over a leaked newspaper story.
Some political scientists defend these “new style” campaigns as important mechanisms for providing voter information and ensuring judicial accountability, citing evidence they increase voter participation and do no harm to the legitimacy of courts.
Sandra Day O’Connor, the pragmatic, Republican, former U.S. Supreme Court justice, thinks otherwise. She leads a very public charge against these campaigns, arguing attack ads are toxic to judicial independence and public confidence.
So how do we citizens evaluate the judiciousness of these judicial campaigns? Maybe this way: Do you view justices as other politician-policymakers who should be held accountable? If so, then wild and wooly judicial campaigns may be to your liking.
If, however, you believe justices are a unique class of public official for whom independence is more important than accountability, then you may want to speak up. Otherwise, watching future Oklahoma judicial elections unfold may feel like one is Keeping Up with the Kardashians.
Either way, you can’t deny that millions love to watch that show — whether they admit it or not.
Eakins is a professor of political science at the University of Central Oklahoma.
Opinions expressed on the commentary page, in letters to the editor and elsewhere in this newspaper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of ownership or management.