On Sunday, The Oklahoman's editorial board ran to the defense of the conservative State Chamber of Oklahoma's forthcoming effort to politicize judicial retention races in the state. The State Chamber has created the Oklahoma Civil Justice Council, which will sponsor a controversial "zero-to-100 rating system for judges" based on how friendly, in the council's view, they are to business. Legal experts have called the judicial ranking plan "inappropriate" and an "attempt to slant...the judiciary, in favor of big business and away from the common person."
The Oklahoman staunchly defended the system on grounds that it would inform voters about judicial races, even while noting that the information the State Chamber and its "partner organizations in Oklahoma City and Tulsa" plan to provide would be biased. From The Oklahoman editorial:
The chambers' plan would give non-lawyers at least some information before casting a ballot. The rating plan is an informational campaign, just like any other in politics. Is there bias in the chambers' rating system? Sure. Just like there's bias in any report evaluating lawmakers. And just like there's bias in campaign contributions: Attorneys and businesses don't give money equally to all candidates in all races.
Furthermore, citizens who don't agree with the chambers' agenda are free to ignore their rankings -- or even determine candidate selection based on who the chambers rank as being the worst.
Too often, Oklahoma citizens must vote on judicial races in an information vacuum. The chambers' efforts would fill part of that void. We hope the information provided is relevant, credible and in context. The chambers' ratings system must be a serious and deliberative effort that doesn't criticize judges for merely upholding the law as it's written. Otherwise, they shouldn't bother with the project.
This is a curious argument for the largest newspaper of public record in the state to make. After all, if there's an "information vacuum" with regard to judicial races, The Oklahoman ought to be the one filling it. Instead, Nexis news records prior to the 2010 election indicate they've failed resoundingly at informing the Oklahoman electorate about judicial races.
In 2010, two Oklahoma Supreme Court justices -- Steven W. Taylor and James Winchester -- were up for retention on Election Day. In the six months leading up to the election, Taylor was mentioned in content describing his official duties a mere five times -- and only three times in pieces related to the election. These three mentions included a brief letter to the editor and a long list of every name and issue appearing on the ballot. Winchester's mentions numbered a mere four, including the same letter and ballot list.
Only one article, mentioning both Taylor and Winchester, was dedicated to providing deeper context about the judicial seats on the ballot. The news piece listed who originally appointed each justice and listed their professional resume prior to reaching the bench, but the article is completely devoid of information about the justices' decisions or job performance since being appointed (Taylor in 2004, Winchester in 2000).
As a comparison, James Winchester, the long snapper for the University of Oklahoma football team, was mentioned over twice as often as the state Supreme Court justice of the same name. (Of course, the Sooner junior did lead the Big 12 in fumble recoveries at one point in that 2010 season.)
Is The Oklahoman really content to abdicate the duty of objectively informing their readers about important issues to biased special interests like the State Chamber? It wouldn't be the first time.