Published Jan. 19, 2018 in the Tulsa World
Excerpt from Tulsa World editorial
Here’s a good question: Will that make Oklahoma government more prone to corruption or less?
A review of Oklahoma history would suggest that neither our current system nor the proposed one is a sufficient bulwark against bribery, bid-rigging and favoritism.
Oklahoma’s elective secondary offices have a sordid history. Recent egregious cases include the 2009 bribery scandal that sent Insurance Commissioner Carroll Fisher to prison and the 1994 Corporation Commission bribery scandal that sent Commissioner Bob Hopkins to prison. There are plenty of other, less famous examples to cite.
But the governor’s office is hardly immune from these sorts of shenanigans either. In my lifetime one former governor went to prison on bribery and extortion charges and another was dogged by allegations of campaign law violations until he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor in a plea agreement that saw eight felonies dismissed.
Earlier state history is full of horrible examples of corruption and incompetence in the governor’s office — offices and paroles for sale, bid-rigging and cronyism.
It seems that, in the wrong hands, state government is corruptible, and I can’t say that taking offices off the ballot and putting the governor in charge will change that. It will make state government as honest as the governor is, but our history is certainly mixed on that account.
It’s too bad that we don’t have a system that vets state agency directors on the basis of competence, makes sure that the people’s business gets done without scandal and allows for public participation in the system.
Wait! Actually, we do.
It’s been working for the state judiciary for more than 50 years. When judges die or retire, candidates for the bench apply to the Judicial Nominating Committee, a geographically diverse, nonpartisan panel that recommends three candidates for the governor on the basis of their credentials. The governor appoints the winner, who serves a set term in office and then is answerable to the public in a nonpartisan re-election process.
That’s a system that combines the grass-roots nature of commission government with a strong chief executive.
And it has kept Oklahoma’s judiciary free of corruption for decades.
Before the state reformed its judicial selection process, we had freewheeling partisan elections to choose our judges, and we ended up with some real peaches, including three Supreme Court judges who ended up in prison on bribery convictions in the 1960s.
The Judicial Nomination Commission is not terribly popular at the state Capitol, where legislators constantly seem determined to get their political claws into the process of appointing judges. That should be sufficient reason for anyone to see that it ought to be preserved.
Actually, considering how well the Judicial Nominating Committee has worked for as long as it has worked, it seems like we could find a lot worse models for how to reform the state’s executive branch of government than the one we use to find judges.