I could have been a judge, but I never had the Latin for the judging. I never had it, so I'd had it, as far as being a judge was concerned." Thus spoke park bench philosopher E. L. Wisty, alter ego of the late great Peter Cook.
Tulsa voters may well wonder if a working knowledge of Latin or some even more esoteric subject is required before one can cast an informed vote in the judicial races on the ballot.
In the name of accountability and democracy, Oklahoma's district judges come before the voters every four years in contested non-partisan elections. But in the name of justice, ethics, and professional responsibility, the information the voters need is withheld from them.
Fourteen district judges serve Judicial District No. 14, which consists of Tulsa and Pawnee Counties. Those 14 offices are up for election every four years, but this year only five will be contested. Nine incumbent judges drew no opposition.
Two sitting district judges (Tom Thornbrugh and Deborah Shallcross) each drew a single challenger, as did Associate District Judge Caroline Wall. The office being vacated by the retirement of Ronald Shaffer has drawn two candidates. Those two-candidate races will be on the November ballot.
Two open seats will be on the July primary ballot. Tulsa County voters will narrow a field of six candidates to replace Gregory Frizzell, who has been nominated by President Bush to the Federal District Court. The top two vote-getters will move on to the November ballot.
Three candidates have entered the race to replace retiring Judge David Peterson. That choice will be made by voters in Electoral Division No. 4 – north Tulsa County and the City of Tulsa east of Memorial.
The lack of information is frustrating, because we all know the kind of damage a judge can do.
A bad judge can mean that a dangerous criminal goes free or an innocent man spends years fighting to regain his freedom. A bad judge can mean a business-killing lawsuit settlement. A bad judge can substitute his own biases for the clear text of the law.
So how do we learn enough about the candidates to tell the good from the bad? Not from the candidates themselves.
A candidate for judge will tell you all about his hobbies, how many children he has, where he went to law school, the kind of law he practices – and that's about it.
You won't hear anything about his judicial philosophy. You won't get a sense of whether he'll be too ready or too hesitant to discard evidence in a criminal case, whether he'll be biased toward the husband or the wife in divorce cases.
(You won't get even a hint as to whether he's likely to employ pneumatic devices as a way of dealing with the boredom.)
Does he think Roe v. Wade was rightly decided? Does he believe that the First Amendment protects flag burning? He won't say.
Canon 5 of the Code of Judicial Conduct says that a candidate for judicial office should not "with respect to cases, controversies, or issues that are likely to come before the court, make pledges, promises or commitments that are inconsistent with impartial performance of the adjudicative duties of the office."
It also says that a candidate should not "knowingly misrepresent the identity, qualifications, present position or other fact concerning the candidate or opponent."
Although similar rules in Minnesota were struck down by the U. S. Supreme Court in 2002 (Republican Party of Minnesota v. White) as a violation of the First Amendment right to freedom of speech, most candidates steer well clear of both rules, declining comment on anything controversial and saying nothing at all about their opponents.
The people who are in the best position to tell you about a potential judge's tendencies, intelligence, temperament, and work ethic are the trial attorneys. They aren't likely to tell you much either, at least not publicly.
Even if an attorney weren't hindered by a provision of the Oklahoma Rules of Professional Conduct (violation of which could cost them their license), she is well aware that anything she says can and will be held against her should she ever try a case in the court of a judge she criticized.
Still, attorneys will sometimes share their insights privately. And you can learn some things from a candidate's affiliations and preferences which may disclose his judicial philosophy.
Here's what I've learned about the two judicial races that will be on the July 25 primary ballot.
Office 4 (replacing David Peterson):David Blades, Daman Cantrell, and James M. Caputo. Blades and Caputo are registered Republicans, Cantrell is registered as a Democrat.
Blades is a criminal defense attorney. He originally announced plans to run against sitting Assistant District Judge Caroline Wall but filed for this seat instead.
Cantrell has served as a special district judge since 1999. Before that he served seven years as a public defender. Insiders say that Cantrell is intelligent, but isn't decisive, doesn't think things through, and makes decisions on grounds other than the facts and the law.
Cantrell's candidacy was challenged by Blades, and Cantrell acknowledged that he only established residency in the district in June at the time he filed for office, renting an apartment in the district and putting a "For Sale by Owner" sign up in front of his house. Despite that, the State Election Board ruled that Cantrell was eligible to remain on the ballot.
Caputo is a former Tulsa County Deputy Sheriff and Owasso police officer. For the last five years, he has served as municipal judge for Collinsville. He also works as a trial attorney, mainly handling criminal defense and family law. He's active in the Collinsville chapter of the Knights of Columbus, the Catholic men's service organization.
Friends of mine in the legal profession speak very highly of Caputo and think he will make an excellent judge.
Office 10 (replacing Greg Frizzell): Deirdre Dexter, James W. Dunham, Mary F. Fitzgerald, Steven Hjelm, J. Anthony Miller, David C. Youll. All six candidates are registered Republicans.
Of the six, Deirdre Dexter (www.dexterforjudge.com) has the most prior court experience. In April 2000, she was appointed by Gov. Frank Keating to serve out a term as Tulsa County Associate District Judge, but in 2002, she lost her bid for election to a full term to Caroline Wall. Originally running to recapture her old seat, she changed plans when Frizzell's Federal appointment was announced on the final day of the filing period.
I have yet to encounter someone who speaks ill of Dexter's character, work ethic, or tenure as judge. Dexter received the endorsement of the Oklahoma Republican Assembly.
David Youll currently serves as a special district judge. He boasts of his efficiency, reducing his backlog of cases from six months to 30 days.
Critics in the legal profession say that's because he is entirely too rigid, with a "my way or the highway" attitude, and that he can't handle situations that don't fit into a neat template. Youll's name drew the strongest negative reactions.
Mary Fitzgerald serves as a District Court referee handling drug, DUI, and domestic cases. She spent many years as head of Legal Services of Eastern Oklahoma, funded by the national Legal Services Corporation, a Great Society-era program that has received a lot of scrutiny and criticism from conservatives. She's an active supporter of the YWCA.
Hjelm is a public defender and has been a criminal defense attorney in private practice, most notably defending Terry Badgwell in the Deadtown Tavern murder case. He has been active for many years in the Tulsa County Republican Men's Club. He was a candidate for judge in 2002.
Dunham handles estate law and represents plaintiffs in suits against nursing homes and medical facilities. He represented the mother of Scott Bolton in her wrongful death suit against bar owner Steve Kitchell.
Miller (www.millerforjudge.com) is a trial attorney, often defending tort lawsuits on behalf of government bodies and insurance companies. He has also served as City Attorney for Mounds and Kiefer.
Tony Miller has not had a high profile legal career, but I've known him personally for over a decade and think he would make an excellent judge. As an elder at Christ Presbyterian Church (part of the conservative Presbyterian Church in America denomination), he has helped lead the congregation through some significant crises.
He displays a keen intelligence, an orderly mind, and an even-keeled temperament. To give you a sense of Miller's worldview, he and his wife homeschooled their children through fifth grade, and National Review, the conservative fortnightly, is his favorite magazine.
Although there are some other solid candidates, Miller has my support in the Office 10 race.
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