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Proposal that would force Oklahoma judges to retire at 75 stokes concern

A gavel.
Wesley Tingey

Some in the legal community are concerned about legislation that would require judges to retire at 75.

But the author said Senate Bill 1672 is needed because the Oklahoma Supreme Court over the years has invalidated reforms Republicans worked very hard to pass after a century of Democratic control.

The state’s high court nullified bills dealing with workers’ compensation, lawsuit reform and abortion, said Sen. Julie Daniels, R-Bartlesville.

The Supreme Court has legislated from the bench, said Daniels, who holds a law degree.

She said 75 is a reasonable age to set for judicial retirement, and other states have similar laws.

“I believe that is a good age when someone who has done public service should step aside and let there be new blood on the court, especially because of the fact the makeup of the Legislature and executive (branches) has changed,” she said. “I don’t believe our Supreme Court reflects the people of the state of Oklahoma.”

Daniels’ bill would apply to district and appellate court judges.

“I am looking for consistency here and across the spectrum,” Daniels said.

She said lawmakers and statewide elected officials have term limits.

“This seemed a better way to go and easier to apply to all levels of the judiciary,” Daniels said.

Legislators and statewide office holders don’t have a mandated retirement age, said Sen. Mary Boren, D-Norman.

It is another attempt at “government overreach” to allow special interests to try to seat people who endorse their agenda, said Boren, who holds a law degree.

University of Oklahoma College of Law Dean Emeritus Andy Coats said the bill, should it become law, might run afoul of age discrimination laws.

“I am not sure it would withstand a federal analysis,” said Coats, a former Oklahoma County district attorney.

Coats, 90, said he is still teaching and thinks he does a good job.

Lived experiences are important, especially for those on the bench, he said.

“Sure, everybody wants to pick their own Supreme Court, but you can’t,” Coats said.

Joseph Watt served on the Oklahoma Supreme Court for nearly 26 years before retiring in 2017 at the age of 70.

“I have always felt like the ballot box is the answer to judicial service,” Watt said.

When he was tapped for the Oklahoma Supreme Court in 1992, its members probably had over 150 years of combined appellate judicial service, Watt said.

Several Oklahoma Supreme Court justices, such as Alma Wilson and Marian Opala, were older than 75 when they retired or died in office, he said.

“All of them were sharp as a tack when they retired or passed away,” he said.

Watt said he is not in favor of arbitrary age limits.

“Today’s 75 is yesterday’s 55,” he said, adding that people are taking better care of themselves and living longer.

Court decisions are based on the law and the facts, not personal ideologies, Watt said.

James Bland served on the bench for 25 years before retiring at 62. He is chairman of the Oklahoma Judicial Nominating Commission, which reviews judicial applicants and recommends names to the governor for consideration.

He said he has not read the bill and has no comment.

But mandating a retirement age could result in some good candidates deciding not to apply, Bland said.

He said his remarks were his personal opinion and not those of the JNC.

Oklahoma Voice is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oklahoma Voice maintains editorial independence.

Barbara Hoberock is a senior reporter with Oklahoma Voice. She began her career in journalism in 1989 after graduating from Oklahoma State University. She began with the Claremore Daily Progress and then started working in 1990 for the Tulsa World. She has covered the statehouse since 1994 and served as Tulsa World Capitol Bureau chief. She covers statewide elected officials, the legislature, agencies, state issues, appellate courts and elections.
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