The primary function of a court system is to keep domestic peace. The courts do this through formalized rituals of case and controversy solving, which has been accepted and recognized in the United States through the establishment of general court systems. In territorial Oklahoma a court system was created in the 1890s, and it was continued by the framers of the Oklahoma Constitution after statehood in 1907.
The Oklahoma court system might best be studied as a history in two separate chapters. The first chapter is that of the creation of the court system in the 1907 Oklahoma Constitution and subsequent enactment in 1908 statutes. The second follows the approval of reform amendments to the constitution in 1967. It is this second chapter, one hastened along by scandals involving Oklahoma Supreme Court justices in the 1960s that led to the establishment of an Oklahoma court system that is modern in both structure and administration.
The state's court system was established by provisions in the 1907 Oklahoma Constitution that assigned Oklahoma's judicial power to the legislature and the judiciary. The 1908 Oklahoma Legislature formally enacted statutes creating the state judicial system, retaining many of the features originally established in the Oklahoma territorial courts.
Phillip Simpson wrote in Oklahoma Politics that the Oklahoma Legislature played the dominant role in the management of the state's judiciary in the first sixty years following statehood. This legislative dominance remained until judicial reform articles were approved by Oklahoma voters in 1967. Although judicial reform efforts had been underway for many years, this successful adoption of judicial articles received its impetus from a series of scandals involving several Oklahoma Supreme Court justices, a situation that became public news in the 1960s. The new constitutional provisions effectively removed judicial elections from direct partisan politics and led to the establishment of a greatly revamped court system.
Oklahoma has two general types of state courts: appellate and trial courts. Other specialized and local courts have been established occasionally by the Oklahoma Legislature. The Oklahoma court system is different from all other states, with the exception of Texas, in that Oklahoma has two courts of last resort: the Oklahoma Supreme Court and the Court of Criminal Appeals. These two appellate courts have specifically assigned jurisdiction.
The Oklahoma Constitution and the Oklahoma Legislature have created three separate appellate courts. The first is the Oklahoma Supreme Court. All civil appeals from the Oklahoma trial courts are taken directly to the Oklahoma Supreme Court, which hears appeals as a single body of nine justices. In addition, the Oklahoma Supreme Court was assigned by the 1967 constitutional reform articles with management oversight over the entire state court system. The responsibility for the management of the state's court system is ordinarily exercised through the adoption of various rules by the Oklahoma Supreme Court. The court also adopts rules of operation to govern the Oklahoma court system and rules of practice to guide attorneys in the conduct of cases before the various courts.
The second appellate court is the Court of Criminal Appeals, which, as is found elsewhere only in Texas, is given exclusive jurisdiction over appeals of all criminal cases taken from the state district courts. The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals hears appeals as a single body of five judges.
The Oklahoma Supreme Court has the power to assign civil appeals for actual formal consideration to a third appellate court, the Court of Civil Appeals. This intermediate appellate court hears cases in four separate divisions, or panels, of three judges. Tulsa and Oklahoma City each have two divisions. The Court of Civil Appeals is responsible for the majority of appeals decided within the Oklahoma court system.
Oklahoma's Supreme Court justices and Court of Criminal Appeals judges are selected following provisions set out in the Oklahoma Constitution. Statutory provisions govern the election or appointment of judges to the Oklahoma Court of Appeals.
Court litigation typically begins with a case filed with one of the state's twenty-six district courts. Cases before these courts are ordinarily heard by a single judge with an impaneled jury acting as the general fact finder. The Oklahoma District Courts are administratively organized into twenty-six judicial districts in various communities around the state with District Court judges elected in nonpartisan elections.
Danny M. Adkison and Lisa McNair Palmer, The Oklahoma Constitution: A Reference Guide (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2001).
George B. Fraser, "Oklahoma's New Judicial System," Oklahoma Law Review 21 (November 1968).
David R. Morgan, Robert E. England, and George G. Humphreys, Oklahoma Politics and Policies: Governing the Sooner State (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991).
Phillip Simpson, "The Modernization and Reform of the Oklahoma Judiciary," Oklahoma Politics 3 (1994).
The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Jerry E. Stephens, "Judiciary," The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=JU001.
© Oklahoma Historical Society.