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None January 28th, 2014

As the Oklahoma Legislature convenes on Feb. 3, hundreds of bills are stacked and ready for its consideration. From legalizing marijuana to changing how divorces are considered, some may have more impact than others if they’re passed as written. Some of the top contenders for change this year are included below.

Dozens of laws are proposed for this year’s state Legislature, including changes for judges, divorces, marijuana legalization, militias and more.

BY TIM FARLEY

As the Oklahoma Legislature convenes on Feb. 3, hundreds of bills are stacked and ready for its consideration. From legalizing marijuana to changing how divorces are considered, some may have more impact than others if they’re passed as written. Some of the top contenders for change this year are included below.

Payback? Political payback is the primary reason state lawmakers have introduced bills that “attack the independence” of the Oklahoma judiciary, a state court administrator said.

Proposed measures would eliminate approved raises for state judges and justices and change the way judicial officers are elected. Specifically, a proposal by Sen. Brian Crain (R-Tulsa) would require a judicial candidate’s age, number of years served in office and the name of the governor who originally appointed the judge or justice placed on the ballot. No other elected office has those same ballot requirements.

Another proposal by Rep. Leslie Osborn (R-Mustang) would allow voters to decide if a 60 percent super majority, instead of a simple majority, should be required to retain justices at the Supreme Court, Court of Criminal Appeals and Court of Civil Appeals. Justices in those courts do not face opposition.

Other proposals would implement judicial term limits, require judges to retire at 75 and repeal the nonpartisan judicial election law. State Sen. Anthony Sykes, chairman of the Senate judiciary committee, proposed political party designations be placed on the election ballot next to each judicial candidate’s name.

None of the lawmakers returned calls for comment in connection with these bills.

Mike Evans, administrative director for state courts, said age requirements and term limits would force high-caliber justices off the bench without cause.

“I have not seen any evidence that age has anything to do with a judicial officer making a better decision,” he said. “They really make better decisions the longer they’re there.”

Evans believes the proposals are political payback for a court decision that struck down a tax cut approved by legislators in 2013. The court ruled the tax cut legislation, which included provisions creating a fund for Capitol repairs, violated a constitutional prohibition against including more than one subject in a single bill.

Sen. Kyle Loveless (R-Oklahoma City) has requested a constitutional amendment be placed on the ballot to repeal the single-subject provision.

“They (legislators) want the public to see they’ve taken popular viewpoints knowing the court will have to decide otherwise,” Evans said.

In 2010, the state Supreme Court was at the heart of another controversial case when justices voided a strict ultrasound law for women seeking abortions.

Oklahoma officials appealed the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case.

Pay hikes disappear? State Rep. Mike Brown (D-Tahlequah) introduced a resolution that would negate judicial salary increases recommended by the independent Board on Judicial Compensation.

“If that were allowed to go through, it would give every state officer a pay raise,” he said. “We have guards at Big Mac (Oklahoma State Reformatory in McAlester) who are making $12 an hour and living on food stamps. We need to increase teacher pay to the regional average and give a raise to our state workers who haven’t had a raise in eight years.”

Salaries for state officers, such as the governor and attorney general, are tied to judicial pay, he said.

Brown said his proposal was made to protect state workers and not punish the judiciary but acknowledged that some of the judicial-related bills could involve “a little political play.”

Moving forward Another legislative measure designed to spark public debate involves legalizing, regulating and taxing marijuana.

In Senate Bill 2116, Sen. Connie Johnson (D-Forest Park) proposes that people 21 or older be allowed to possess up to one ounce of marijuana and five marijuana plants. In addition, the proposal calls for the establishment of legal retail marijuana shops and cultivation facilities.

Under the proposed law, retail shops would pay application, registration and renewal fees with the state Health Department serving as the program administrator.

The proposal also allows for a marijuana excise tax with all revenue divided between the state’s general fund (50 percent), health department (20 percent) and education department (30 percent). A $50-per-ounce excise tax would be paid by cultivation facilities that sell to retail stores or product manufacturing facilities.

State officials in Colorado estimate they will collect $67 million in taxes collected from marijuana dispensaries this year. Colorado and Washington state residents voted to legalize the drug in 2012.

Changing divorce rules Divorce, a return to traditional Christmas greetings and the deployment of an “unorganized” state militia are among some of the unique issues state lawmakers will consider starting next week.

For starters, getting divorced might be more difficult if state House Bill 3115 is approved by the Legislature.

State Rep. Sean Roberts (R-Hominy) introduced the measure, which would eliminate incompatibility as grounds for ending a marriage.

Longtime OKC divorce attorney Arnold Fagin said passage of the proposal would be a “serious mistake.”

“That would mean you could only get a divorce through one of these other nasty reasons, which would be part of the public record. We shouldn’t have marital slavery in Oklahoma,” he said.

Other legal reasons for divorce include abandonment for one year, adultery, impotence, extreme cruelty, fraudulent contract, habitual drunkenness, gross neglect of duty or insanity for a period of five years, according to state law.

Most divorce cases involve incompatibility as the motivating factor, but “other reasons often are included,” Fagin said.

“Putting those other ugly reasons on the public record don’t do any good for the children or grandchildren, and I don’t think it (HB 3115) would change the divorce rate,” Fagin said.

Based on decades of practicing family law, Fagin said most divorce cases involve couples that “grow apart because they are incompatible.”

Ho, ho, ho It’s 11 months before Santa Claus comes again, but Sen. Josh Brecheen (R-Coalgate) wants to ensure that Christmas greetings are allowed in public schools. Brecheen, author of Senate Bill 1180, wants to give legal protection to schoolchildren and teachers who say, “Merry Christmas,” “Happy Hanukkah” and “Happy holidays.”

The measure also would allow school districts to display on school property scenes or symbols associated with traditional winter celebrations, including a menorah or a Christmas image such as a nativity scene or Christmas tree.

 
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