Oklahoma “constitutional crisis” resolved, judges still targets for removal by legislator

Williamsburg, Virginia (April 25, 2014) -- Despite the resolution to recent developments concerning a controversial stay of execution in an Oklahoma death penalty case—the run-up to which had been characterized as a looming “constitutional crisis” by several legal observers—articles of impeachment were introduced April 23 against five members of the Oklahoma Supreme Court. The representative filing the articles—House Resolution 1059—accuses five members of the court of “willful neglect of duty,” according to comments the legislator made to the Associated Press.

Threats of removal from office for decisions in controversial cases are not new to America’s state court judges, who can be properly disciplined by judicial oversight bodies for ethical lapses. Legislative removal usually requires misbehavior in office or serious criminal wrongdoing. The ongoing crisis in Oklahoma marks the fourth time in four years that state high court judges have been threatened with impeachment over their role in decision making, according to research by the National Center for State Courts:

  • In 2013, a bill of address sought to remove six of the seven members of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts (HB 1342) for ruling in a “private right of action” case.
  • In 2011, several efforts were made to legislatively remove four members of the Iowa Supreme Court for participating in the unanimous decision in Varnum v. Brien, which legalized same-sex marriage in that state (HBs 47-50). Three other members of the Iowa Supreme Court lost reelection in 2010.
  • In 2011, in what is perhaps the strangest case, the New Jersey legislature filed articles of impeachment against a sitting member of the state supreme court on the basis that the judge had refused to cast votes in certain cases (SR 105).

In none of these instances was any of the judges ultimately removed from office by the legislature.

 

The NCSC Backgrounder is designed to provide the media with statistics and facts related to current issues of interest.

The National Center for State Courts, headquartered in Williamsburg, Va., is a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the administration of justice by providing leadership and service to the state courts. Founded in 1971 by the Conference of Chief Justices and Chief Justice of the United States Warren E. Burger, NCSC provides education, training, technology, management, and research services to the nation's state courts.