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Oklahoma's legislature is entering the bullying phase

Oklahoma’s Republican legislative supermajority must have either run out of policy ideas, or just gotten bored with doing what we elected them to do. They’ve recently polished the art of political bullying, where they pick on the vulnerable or the unpopular, just because they can. Many such laws have already passed and been signed into law, like ever-tightening abortion restrictions and prohibiting some of those who identify as female from participating in women’s sports. While a lot of similarly bad ideas died earlier in the session, there are two bills that could still get through and become law. Here’s a brief overview.

Transgender folks have it hard enough without needless government interference

It’s become normal in the last few years for bills that haven’t seen any real legislative discussion to come back in a secret substitution of bad language for unrelated bills. That happened last week with Senate Bill 615, another attack on transgender children and their parents. This is Oklahoma’s version of the now-notorious “bathroom bill,” prohibiting school students from using the bathroom that corresponds to their actual gender. These bills make schools less safe, hurt academic performance and later employment options, and harm students’ physical and mental health. That’s hardly a prescription for reversing Oklahoma’s dismal record in supporting children (ranking 45th among states in education and 42nd in children's health, according to Annie E. Casey Foundation’s KIDS Count data).

But SB 615 is more than “just” a bathroom bill. It chills classroom discussion of gender-related issues, requiring that parents be informed in advance and in detail of subject matter and materials to be covered. Most alarmingly, this applies to student-counselor meetings, where counselors must notify parents in advance of the topic to be discussed. At best, this may put students with gender questions or concerns in an uncomfortable position at home. At worst it could put them in danger.

SB 615 was amended in the House of Representatives and requires further action by the Senate; the legislative session ends May 27. Here’s an update and call to action on this bill from Freedom Oklahoma. Discussion of the bill starts at 2:58 and the parental notification provisions are described starting at 4:50.

Why tear down a system that works?

Senate Joint Resolution 43 would undo the court reforms established in 1967 after a Supreme Court bribery scandal. It would dramatically reshape Oklahoma’s court system and how the state regulates lawyers.

Authority for the existing trial-level district courts would be removed from the state constitution, potentially to be re-created by later legislation. In the meantime, existing judges would complete their terms and any elections would be on a partisan basis rather than the current ballots, which do not identify candidates’ party affiliation. This would make election of judges more expensive, make judges more dependent on special interests and political parties, and would tilt their rulings. It may not surprise you to know that partisan judge elections are a favorite of conservative legal advocates, who likely have more influence on our legislature than we do.

Appeals courts and the Supreme Court would still be appointed by the Governor and subject to a retention ballot (where voters can choose between keeping a justice and vacating the position). Party affiliation would likewise be added to the retention ballot for the first time. The bill also declares that five of the nine members of the higher courts constitutes a quorum, so it’s conceivable that issues involving the constitutionality of laws and review of the death penalty could be decided by three of nine votes.

The bill would also change the way Oklahoma regulates attorneys. Currently the Board of Bar Examiners establishes rules and admits lawyers. Members of this Board are appointed by the Supreme Court and each represents a district of the state. SJR 43 would empower the Supreme Court to regulate the practice of law in courts; presumably the Board of Bar Examiners could continue to executive this function. However, the bill gives the Legislature sole power to “...regulate the practice of law by individuals not appearing in Oklahoma courts…” This could lead to admission of lawyers who haven’t attended law school or passed any tests or background checks and it will certainly create confusion about who does and does not appear in Oklahoma courts.

Like bills on LGBTQ and gender issues, this bill would address a problem that doesn’t exist and would create new problems, like making judges politicians rather than neutral arbiters and loosening regulations on the practice of law. I would expect more trouble getting this one through the legislature, since some judges and justices will oppose it, as will most lawyers. As of this writing the Oklahoma Bar Association, which represents attorneys in the state, hasn’t taken a public position, but they have expressed concern. If SJR 43 passes the Senate, it would require a vote of the people since it changes the state constitution.

There could be more, but we don’t get to know what just yet

There really aren’t any rules in the legislature these days. Deadlines to pass bills are ignored and entirely new bills that were never reviewed in committee appear on the floor without notice. SB 615 was entirely replaced through four amendments in just a few minutes. If something can’t be run through that way, it can usually go through the tightly controlled budget process. So those who don’t like the direction that legislators are headed have to keep an eye on the state capitol every day for the next three weeks. It only takes a few minutes to take away our rights or make our government function worse, as demonstrated just in these two bills. So it's worth the few minutes to watch and push back now.

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