Case Settled Okla. AG’s Power to Supersede DA
Every now and then, a court hands down a ruling that succinctly summarizes current law as it relates to a legal process. The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals recently authored such a ruling in which it consolidated case law pertaining to Oklahoma rules of statutory construction – as that court currently sees them.
The court’s decision settled a Rogers County case styled as State ex rel Pruitt v Steidley 2015 OK CR 7. The case reached the appeals court after Rogers County Judge Dwayne Steidley issued an order barring Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt’s office from taking over prosecution of Rogers County criminal cases.
It was the first time an Oklahoma Attorney General had ever taken over local criminal prosecutions, according to a KOTV Channel 6 news report. The AG’s office stepped in after widespread conflict erupted among the Rogers County District Attorney’s Office and law enforcement agencies whose cases the DA prosecutes.
The Rogers County conflict involved a citizens’ grand jury petition and a multi-county grand jury, which investigated allegations against public officials but returned no indictments. Acting outside the multi-county grand jury, Pruitt’s office in April, 2015 filed embezzlement charges against former Rogers County Commissioner Kirt Thacker on allegations that had been included in the grand jury petition.
In answering the question of whether the Attorney General could commandeer local prosecutions, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals established as a matter of Oklahoma law that the AG has that authority. Their ruling interpreted an Oklahoma law that details the AG’s duties. As amended in 1995, those duties include:
To initiate or appear in any action in which the interests of the state or the people of the state are at issue… and when so appearing in any such cause or proceeding, the Attorney General may, if the Attorney General deems it advisable and to the best interest of the state, take and assume control of the prosecution or defense of the state’s interest therein; Okla. Stat. tit 74 § 18b(A)(3).
The controversy on appeal involved conflict between that law and a section of Title 19 that authorizes district attorneys to prosecute cases — Okla. Stat. tit. 19 § 215.4. The appeals court said district attorneys are not prevented from prosecuting cases when the AG steps in, but said the DA’s role becomes subservient in those cases.
Do What I Say, Not What I Do
In a recent blog post, we elaborated on rules of statutory construction in terms of common law doctrines. The appeals court’s summary provides more definition to what that court considers “well settled” Oklahoma case law defining rules of statutory construction.
I should add, the court may cite well-settled rules of construction but at times has exercised some unusual mental gymnastics in the way it interprets those rules.
As we noted in another recent post, the court in 2013 upheld a lower court’s refusal to read a two-second rule into a traffic law that prohibits following too close. Less than two years later, the court’s dicta embedded in a 2015 decision implicitly anointed a Okla. Dept. of Public Safety three second rule as non-statutory law.
The court’s unsteady stance with regard to Oklahoma’s “well-settled” rules of statutory construction notwithstanding, the summary in Pruitt v. Steidley — largely quoted from a 2012 case — is so comprehensive of its current view of those rules it is worth repeating here in its entirety:
The rules of statutory interpretation are well settled. As set forth in State v. Stice, 2012 OK CR 14, ¶ 11, 288 P.3d 247, 250:
Statutes are to be construed to determine the intent of the Legislature, reconciling provisions, rendering them consistent and giving intelligent effect to each. Lozoya v. State, 1996 OK CR 55, ¶ 17, 932 P.2d 22, 28; State v. Ramsey, 1993 OK CR 54, ¶ 7, 868 P.2d 709, 711. It is also well established that statutes are to be construed according to the plain and ordinary meaning of their language. Wallace v. State, 1997 OK CR 18, ¶ 4, 935 P.2d 366, 369-370; Virgin v. State, 1990 OK CR 27, ¶ 7, 792 P.2d 1186, 1188. We also recognize that the fundamental principle of statutory construction is to ascertain and give effect to the intention of the Legislature as expressed in the statute. Wallace v. State, 1996 OK CR 8, ¶ 4, 910 P.2d 1084, 1086; Thomas v. State, 1965 OK CR 70, ¶ 4, 404 P.2d 71, 73. However, it is not our place to interpret a statute to address a matter the Legislature chose not to address, even if we think that interpretation might produce a reasonable result. State v. Young, 1999 OK CR 14, ¶ 27, 989 P.2d 949, 955. “[T]o ascertain the intention of the Legislature in the enactment of [a] statute, we may look to each part of the statute, to other statutes upon the same or relative subjects, to the evils and mischiefs to be remedied, and to the natural or absurd consequences of any particular interpretation.” Lozoya v. State, 1996 OK CR 55, ¶ 20, 932 P.2d 22, 28 (quotations and citation omitted). Each part of the various statutes must be given intelligent effect. This Court will not presume the Legislature to have done a vain thing. We are mindful that elementary rules of statutory interpretation require us to avoid any statutory construction which would render any part of a statute superfluous or useless. See, Vilandre v. State, 2005 OK CR 9, ¶ 5, 113 P.3d 893, 896; Byrd v. Caswell, 2001 OK CR 29, ¶ 6, 34 P.3d 647, 648-649. State v. Doak, 2007 OK CR 3, ¶ 17, 154 P.3d 84, 87. Where possible the statutory amendments should be reconciled or construed together. Id.
¶13 Oklahoma law provides a statutory rule for interpreting conflicting statutes where the language of the statutes cannot be reconciled. The latter statute controls. 75 O.S.2011, § 22 (“If the provisions of any code, title, chapter or article conflict with or contravene the provisions of any former code, title, chapter or article, the provisions of the latter code, title, chapter or article must prevail as to all matter and questions arising thereunder out of the same subject matter.”)
Free Consultation: Tulsa Defense Lawyers
Realistically, the vast majority of criminal cases do not raise questions about rules of statutory construction. In the Rogers County cases the rules came into play when matters outside the particular facts of the case affected a legal proceeding. In proceedings where such arcane rules are more often never raised, a skilled Oklahoma defense attorney must remain ever watchful for those situations where legal rules can be as important as factual arguments.
If you have questions about any aspect of an Oklahoma criminal case, contact a criminal defense attorney in Tulsa at Wirth Law Office for a free consultation. Call today for a confidential conversation about your legal matter: (918) 879-1681 or send your question using the form at the top of this page.