Constitutional Tension Seethes in 2-Headed System
Oklahoma’s top courts are at it again. The Oklahoma Supreme Court has reversed the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals in a decision related to a first-degree murder case.
Those unfamiliar with Oklahoma’s bifurcated court system might think nothing of it. Of course a state supreme court can reverse an appeals court. That is not the way it works in Oklahoma, though. At least not most of the time.
Oklahoma court system has two divisions – criminal courts and civil courts. The Oklahoma Supreme Court reviews civil matters. The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals has the final word in criminal cases, unless there is conflict as to jurisdiction.
“[I]n the event there is any conflict as to jurisdiction, the Supreme Court shall determine which court has jurisdiction and such determination shall be final,” states the Oklahoma Constitution.
Final? In April of 2015, Governor Mary Fallin defied the finality of the Oklahoma Supreme Court’s last-minute order staying two scheduled executions. The case jumped from the criminal court side to the civil court side when attorneys for the condemned men challenged an execution drug secrecy law. Fallin ordered the executions to proceed in spite of the Supreme Court’s stay.
In that case, the Supreme Court effectively backed down before the governor had a chance to actually violate the court’s order. The Supreme Court expedited a hearing, denied the men’s challenge to the secrecy law and lifted its stay of execution. By then, one legislator had drafted an impeachment resolution seeking removal of the justices who had stayed the executions.
The state’s narrow brush with a constitutional crisis echoed in the condemned man’s agonized death throes after he was strapped to a table in Oklahoma’s execution chamber. The now infamous botched execution launched Oklahoma to the forefront of a nationwide death penalty debate.
Prison officials halted Clayton Lockett’s execution 33 minutes after they began pumping drugs into his body. The drugs pooled under his skin when several attempts to insert a needle missed veins in his arm, neck and legs. He died another 10 minutes later as jail officials debated whether to attempt a rescue.
Prison officials canceled a second execution scheduled for the same night. They had run out of execution drugs. They were the same drugs defense attorneys wanted to know about when they had asked the state’s highest civil court to review the execution drug secrecy law.
Courts Disagree on 5 Day Rule
The latest showdown between the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals and the Oklahoma Supreme Court involved a Lincoln County murder case. This time, the Supreme Court was asked to decide how time is computed when litigants appeal a denied motion to disqualify a judge.
Attorneys for the Lincoln County man on trial for the murder of his wife asked the district court to reassign his case because the judge’s mother had also been murdered. The man’s criminal defense attorneys argued the judge’s experience with his own mother’s murder could affect his impartiality.
The judge heard arguments and denied the motion. The man’s attorneys asked for another hearing in front of a different judge. The motion was again denied. They asked the Court of Criminal Appeals to review the order. In an unpublished decision, the criminal appeals court denied their motion as untimely.
Okla. Stat. tit. 12 § 2006(A)
…Except for the times provided in Sections 765, 990.3, 1148.4, 1148.5, 1148.5A, and 1756 of this title, when the period of time prescribed or allowed is less than eleven (11) days, intermediate legal holidays and any other day when the office of the court clerk does not remain open for public business until the regularly scheduled closing time, shall be excluded from the computation.
Oklahoma statutes allow litigants five days to appeal a denied motion to recuse. The Court of Criminal Appeals said his Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2015 petition was filed more than five days after the Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015 decision he appealed.
In a tersely worded decision, the Oklahoma Supreme Court disagreed. Five days means five business days, the court determined. The rule that spells out appellate deadlines related to judicial recusal specifically refers to criminal and civil cases alike.
The court cited Oklahoma’s constitution as authority to decide the case. The Supreme Court rendered its decision as a published case, setting it as precedent in future cases. Meyer v. Smith 2015 OK 86.
The Future of Oklahoma’s Dueling Courts
We would like to presume the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals will yield to the state Supreme Court’s jurisdiction in this matter. This time, there seems to be no opportunity for the executive branch to step in between the courts. Another legislative attempt to impeach the Supreme Court for the way justices read constitutional language would be another embarrassment for Oklahoma, to say the least.
On the other hand, duels between Oklahoma’s appellate divisions are increasingly becoming a cause of consternation for litigants in Oklahoma courts. In this case, it was the second time the defendant in the murder case had asked the Supreme Court to intervene. The other matter involved a contested will attributed to the victim of the alleged murder. The Supreme Court declined to review that matter.
At a minimum, Oklahoma’s courts need to maintain a sense of accord. Two courts rendering contrary opinions about how to interpret the same statutes erodes the doctrine of stare decisis. That doctrine holds that, once a court has set a precedent, judges should follow the precedent.
Several areas of Oklahoma law present opportunities for dueling civil and criminal courts to set opposing precedents. Another range war could be looming over rules adopted by the Board of Tests for Alcohol and Drug Influence. Criminal courts and civil courts alike have a role in determining whether the board’s rules are legally sufficient. Civil courts have striken Board of Test rules in Dept. of Public Safety drivers license revocation hearings that the criminal court may otherwise uphold in criminal DUI cases.
Even so, Oklahoma could limp along indefinitely with our bifurcated court system — if everybody plays nice. To avoid a showdown, either the criminal side will need to occasionally yield, or the civil side might need to find creative ways to avoid future confrontations while still doing its appointed job according to its own reading of the state’s constitution. The governor and legislature would do well to avoid fanning the flames with needless meddling until the state is ready to close the divide once and for all.
For now, a mere 108 years after statehood put an end to the Wild West era, calls to restructure Oklahoma’s relatively young judicial system are unlikely to gain traction. It looks as if enough legislators savor the tough-on-crime criminal courts that they might impeach Supreme Court justices before they would entertain notions of combining the two sides.
Free Consultation Tulsa Criminal Attorney
For criminal defense attorneys in Oklahoma, the divide between civil and criminal courts can require a delicate balancing act. When criminal defendants’ civil rights are at risk, criminal attorneys must be articulate in appealing to the top civil court to enforce those rights.
As recent cases have shown, the Supreme Court is willing to review civil matters that affect criminal proceedings. Those matters can involve court rules, legislative authority or administrative procedure.
If you are charged with a crime in Tulsa or anywhere in Oklahoma, you need the counsel of a criminal attorney who understands how both sides of Oklahoma’s court system operate. For a free consultation with a criminal attorney in Tulsa, call Wirth Law Office at (918) 879-1681 or send your question using the form at the top of this page.
Tags: Oklahoma Supreme Court