Fifty years ago, Oklahomans were humiliated by revelations that three state Supreme Court justices had accepted bribes. Former Justices N.S. Corn, Earl Welch and N.B. Johnson served jail time for their criminal actions.
In 1965, scandal burst forth in an unusual setting, the Oklahoma Supreme Court. Three judges were implicated in taking payoffs to decide cases before the court. These three judges were either convicted in court or impeached. IRS inquiries laid much of the groundwork.
One of the guilty judges, N.S. Corn, became contrite and publicly described his misbehavior. He admitted that over about 20 years of taking payoff, he could not recall one single year in which he had not taken a payoff. Professor Phillip M. Simpson of Cameron University has researched one spectacular payoff case in which “Corn swore that he had received $150,000 in $100 bills … in a downtown Oklahoma City meeting ….
The attorney who had established the pattern with Corn was O.A. Cargill, former Oklahoma City mayor and Corn’s friend for 50 years.” This corruption obviously reached into the highest levels and included citizens usually deemed quite respectable.
Corn, Welch and Johnson had been elected, and re-elected, to their high positions by the people. The shame cast on our state by their misconduct was the fuel for a judicial reform movement led The Sneed Plan, calling for the appointment, not election, of our appellate judges, passed as a constitutional amendment in 1967. Missing from the Sneed Plan were district court judges who remain elected officials to this day. The Sneed Plan established the Judicial Nominating Commission, composed of 15 members. It has six lawyers, elected by the lawyers, six laypersons appointed by the governor, plus three more laypersons, one selected by the members of the commission, one selected by the House speaker and one selected by the president pro tem of the Senate. When a vacancy occurs on any court, the commission carefully screens all applicants and submits a list of three qualified people to the governor who must name one person from that list. All appointed appellate judges are on a retention ballot every four years. A bad apple can be removed. If a district court judgeship becomes vacant by death, resignation or removal, that vacancy is filled in the same manner by the commission. Why were district judges not included in the Sneed Plan? The answer is simple, political sausage. In 1967, rural Oklahoma was suspicious of a commission in Oklahoma City and the governor having a big say in who their local judges would be. That opposition was deemed substantial, so supporters of the Sneed Plan decided that half a loaf was better than none and, as a political expedient, they excluded the district judges from the plan submitted to the voters. The time has come to further amend the law to provide for the appointment of district judges in the same manner as appellate judges. The 1967 compromise has served its purpose. At least 12 members of the commission must live in what was formerly our six congressional districts so the rural vs. urban tension is reduced. The practice of law has changed and lawyers now routinely travel statewide to appear in court. Half of the presidents of the Oklahoma Bar Association have historically come from counties other than Oklahoma and Tulsa. It is a different world from 1967. Electing judges is simply a bad idea. In Tulsa County we recently elected five district judges. Incumbent judges had to take time from their important work to campaign and, yes, raise money. It is not surprising that some candidates raised and spent more than $100,000 campaigning. Most of these campaign funds come from lawyers who practice before those same judges. This is an unfortunate byproduct of electing judges. Unlike most political races, ethical restrictions limit what judicial candidates can do in a campaign, e.g., they cannot say “verdicts are too high (or too low)” or “I’m for the little guy.” When we have judicial elections, lawyers get many questions from good people who ask how they should vote. The average conscientious voter has no reliable means of making an informed decision on who will be a good judge. Judges go to work every day and handle the cases they are assigned. Most of their work is without fanfare or notoriety. Occasionally, a judge will draw a case that gets media attention but that is the exception, not the rule. Oklahoma is one of 32 states that still elects some or all judges. Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor recently said, “in too many states, judicial elections are becoming political prize fights where partisans and special interests seek to install judges who will answer to them instead of the law and the Constitution.” Or, as Alexis de Tocqueville predicted more than a century ago, the election of judges will “sooner or later, have disastrous results.” For these and other reasons, it is time to change our laws, get it right and provide for district judges to be appointed, and be subject to removal, in the same manner as appellate judges.
Oklahoma Supreme Court, a 1965 scandal of bribery and betrayal, of fixed decisions, impeachment and prison terms. On another level, it is a story of legal reform fueled by impressive moral courage and tenacity, the story of Harlan Grimes, the lawyer who was disbarred on May 8, 1960, for publicly accusing a Supreme Court justice of taking bribes The Daily Oklahoman said;
On Dec. 9, 1964, 80-year-old former Supreme Court Justice N.S. Corn, who was serving an 18-month sentence at the federal prison in Springfield, Mo., for income tax evasion, gave his 84-page sworn statement to the government. In it, he detailed his involvement in bribery, implicating Justice Earl Welch, Justice N.B. Johnson and others. Ten days later, Corn was freed early.
That statement found its way to federal judge Stephen Chandler, who shared it with William Berry, a new justice. Berry got G.T. Blankenship, a new Republican representative, to present it to the state legislature.
Denying his guilt and refusing to leave quietly, Oklahoma Supreme Court Justice Napoleon Bonaparte Johnson was impeached by the Oklahoma Senate .
The evidence presented against Johnson was Corn’s uncorroborated testimony and a $7,902 discrepancy between Johnson’s income and his bank account in 1960 and 1961. Other evidence presented was that, shortly after allegedly receiving a bribe, Johnson had opened a safety deposit box to which his wife did not have access, and that, having previously paid his household bills with cashier’s checks, he stopped doing so after March 1962. The Senate also heard that on April 12, 1962, attorney Harlan Grimes had written Johnson accusing him of taking a bribe.
What are the conditions that led to this corruption? The authors suggest that it was both the populist method of electing justices with its campaigns and political contributions, and the influence of the legislature derived from their control of judicial salaries.
There was also a system of rules which caused Harlan Grimes to be disbarred for publishing the truth about justices and bribery. Inadequate campaign financing laws, the lack of a retirement plan for justices and meager salaries exacerbated a natural human tendency to dishonesty and greed.
In the wake of all the publicized corruption, the impeachment, the convictions for perjury and tax evasion, the anti-populist forces that had failed to have their way in the drafting of the original Oklahoma constitution did have their way on July 11, 1965. No longer would the people be able to elect their appellate judges from the field of all qualified lawyers. Interposed would be a judicial nominating commission and the governor. The people would be allowed to vote on retention of justices.
The complete story still has not been told and perhaps it never will be. One thing is certain, however. Harlan Grimes stands for the best in the profession of law. He didn’t let the threat of losing his license to practice law stop him from telling the truth.
On a case-by-case basis, some Supreme Court decisions which were proved to have been bought were subsequently set aside. Those cases were reopened .
After the terrible governorships of the late 20s & early 30’s, it wasn’t until the 1960s that major scandals again surfaced, and then they did so with a vengeance. Three justices of the Oklahoma Supreme Court were removed from office by impeachment or resignation arising from IRS investigations of reports that justices were taking kickbacks for favorable decisions. A powerful former speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives, who had been a dominant figure in state government, was convicted and sent to jail as a result of IRS investigations arising from charges that he failed to report income received in return for political favors. Then in 1975 a former governor, David Hall, was convicted, shortly after leaving office, of misusing his powers of office by trying to direct a state retirement fund to help a friend with a loan. Again, federal officials were the chief agents in cleaning up the corruption.
Harry Holloway, of the Oklahoma Historical Society