George Gibbs is no stranger to District Judge Linda Morrissey’s courtroom.
The founding partner of the Gibbs Armstrong & Borochoff law firm has spent much of his career litigating in Tulsa County, where Morrissey has been a district judge for 22 years.
Gibbs is listed as an attorney in four cases that went before Morrissey in the past two years. One is an open case where Gibbs represents a Tulsa bar’s holding company being sued for at least $150,000 for alleged negligence and civil liability.
In January, while the case was active, Gibbs made a $2,700 contribution, the maximum allowed, to Morrissey’s re-election campaign, making him one of the judge’s top donors this election cycle.
But that judge-donor relationship didn’t prompt changes in any of the four cases, such as Morrissey recusing herself or Gibbs removing himself from a case.
Judges rarely recuse themselves voluntarily or on request because they received money from attorneys arguing before them, according to interviews and a review of court records. That is despite the fact that attorneys represent the largest number of donors to district judges’ campaigns.
An Oklahoma Watch review of campaign finance records shows that attorneys’ donations represented more than half of the $1.6 million in contributions from individuals to district judge candidates so far in this election cycle (through Aug. 13).
Court filings show many of those attorneys frequently have appeared in court before the candidates to whom they gave money; some donated to judges while the judge was still presiding over their case.
No evidence has emerged that donations from lawyers gained them or their firms more favorable rulings or treatment from judges. But national campaign finance reform advocates, along with some Oklahoma judicial candidates, say the state’s system of electing district judges poses a risk to the integrity of the court system.
“One of the drawbacks for states like Oklahoma that elects judges is these conflicts of interests that come with who supports judicial candidates,” said Douglas Keith, counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law. “The question isn’t just if an actual conflict exists. What matters is the perception and what the public may think.”
Many in the legal community, including Gibbs, say current judicial procedures and state ethics rules provide enough safeguards to protect the court system from any tainting by campaign donations.
“Our state judges are more impartial, have better temperaments and are more fair than federal judges,” Gibbs said. “No judge is going to risk their career, their standing and their reputation over a donation.”
Before 1967, justices for the Oklahoma Supreme Court and judges for other appellate courts ran for election.
But an explosive scandal in which several Supreme Court justices were accused of accepting bribes led to dramatic reforms. A Judicial Nominating Commission was created to screen prospective judges and submit names to the governor for appointment.
Those justices and judges are on the ballot for retention votes. Because no statewide judge has ever been removed through a vote, these votes rarely attract attention or campaign donations.
But Oklahoma’s 75 district court judgeships remain elected positions. Sitting judges and judicial candidates must run for election or re-election every four years.
The campaign process mirrors that of other state offices, with exceptions: The races are nonpartisan, and candidates are banned from directly soliciting donations or discussing specific issues or cases. Other campaign fundraising rules are the same, including the ability to accept contributions up to $2,700 per person.
Oklahoma Watch’s review of candidate filings, which includes donors’ self-reported job types, shows lawyers have given more than $840,000 to the 61 judicial candidates who accepted at least some donations from Jan. 1, 2017, to Aug. 13, 2018.
The next largest contributors were identified as retired ($102,732), followed by owners/managers ($62,716), homemakers ($38,047) and physicians ($26,473). Judicial candidates typically receive tens of thousands of dollars in campaign donations; some have received more than $100,000.
John Williams, president of the Oklahoma Bar Association, said the numbers for attorney donations aren’t surprising.
Since judicial candidates are barred from directly soliciting donations, they usually ask people who are close to them to solicit on their behalf.
“If I’m a lawyer running for judge, it’s likely most of my friends will be lawyers, too,” he said. “And a lot of lawyers, as private citizens, are involved in a lot of things, like fundraising, capital campaigns and that type of thing, so it’s not unlikely that they would hit up lawyers for that as well.”
Several attorneys, including Gibbs, said they are in a unique position to influence who sits on the bench.
Gibbs said it is hard for the average citizen to know which judge to vote for since laws prohibit judicial candidates from running on a partisan basis or publicly expressing their views on issues.
The result is that lawyers, who often know the judges well, are usually the best sources to assess who should become or remain a judge, he said.
“How are (average voters) going know who are the good judges?” Gibbs said. “Attorneys know far better than the public about who is fair, honest and impartial.”
But not everyone in the legal community believes attorneys should have that much sway in choosing judges.
Campaign Donations to District Judge Candidates
|Candidate||Office||Faces General Election Opponent?||Total Raised||Donations from Attorneys|
|Bret A. Smith||District 15, Office 4||Yes||$123,115.40||$23,748.00|
|Linda G. Morrissey||District 14, Office 9||Yes||$115,953.36||$94,620.00|
|Hank Young||District 7, Office 5||No||$107,830.00||$16,150.00|
|Jay S. Walker||District 5, Office 1||Yes||$100,000.00||$0|
|Chris Sloan||District 7, Office 5||Yes||$93,170.00||$16,950.00|
|Heather Elizabeth Coyle||District 7, Office 8||Yes||$93,039.86||$39,059.86|
|Richard C. Ogden||District 7, Office 11||No||$88,260.00||$60,780.00|
|Cindy H. Truong||District 7, Office 7||No||$81,405.00||$16,500.00|
|Natalie N. Mai||District 7, Office 5||Yes||$68,093.00||$19,742.07|
|James A. Williamson||District 14, Office 3||No||$69,079.51||$7,385.94|
|Dawn Moody||District 14, Office 10||No||$57,166.79||$37,616.61|
|Martha Rupp Carter||District 14, Office 12||Yes||$54,823.93||$31,134.10|
|Tracy Priddy||District 14, Office 3||Yes||$54,285.00||$24,500.00|
|Kory Slade Kirkland||District 6, Office 1||No||$50,184.00||$19,800.00|
|Brad David Leverett||District 3, Office 1||Yes||$49,750.00||$9,625.00|
|Bill Graves||District 7, Office 10||Yes||$46,344.92||$26,544.92|
|Kelly Morgan Greenough||District 14, Office 6||No||$44,465.15||$30,400.00|
|Stephen Clark||District 14, Office 12||No||$41,605.24||$15,739.38|
|Linda S. Thomas||District 11, Office 1||No||$41,395.00||$7,750.00|
|Michele D. Mcelwee||District 7, Office 9||Yes||$40,915.00||$22,800.00|
|Daman H. Cantrell||District 14, Office 4||No||$40,350.00||$800.00|
|Caroline Wall||District 14, Office 1||Yes||$38,891.08||$21,700.00|
|John Paul Jordan||District 26, Office 2||Yes||$37,803.00||$7,900.00|
|Jim Caputo||District 14, Office 3||Yes||$35,425.00||$24,100.00|
|Rebecca Brett Nightingale||District 14, Office 11||No||$34,818.66||$27,520.00|
|Rod Wiemer||District 24, Office 3||Yes||$34,350.44||$3,000.00|
|Christopher Brecht||District 14, Office 9||Yes||$31,783.00||$16,560.00|
|Michael Tupper||District 21, Office 1||No||$31,300.00||$23,775.00|
|Keith Overton McArtor||District 14, Office 1||No||$30,023.63||$16,413.63|
|Susan Stallings||District 7, Office 10||Yes||$28,602.50||$5,960.00|
|Paul K. Woodward||District 4, Office 2||Yes||$28,337.00||$7,850.00|
|Kelly Hake||District 24, Office 4||Yes||$26,555.00||$2,600.00|
|Jack Dean McCurdy II||District 26, Office 2||Yes||$25,775.00||$23,100.00|
|Shawn S. Taylor||District 12, Office 1||Yes||$24,425.00||$18,500.00|
|Jeff Virgin||District 21, Office 5||No||$22,950.00||$13,250.00|
|Kurt Glassco||District 14, Office 14||No||$20,293.56||$11,624.85|
|Leah Jo Edwards||District 21, Office 2||No||$19,950.00||$9,650.00|
|Rand C. Eddy||District 7, Office 8||Yes||$19,470.00||$17,550.00|
|Kendra Coleman||District 7, Office 9||Yes||$18,976.89||$7,300.00|
|Dennis Wayne Hladik||District 4, Office 3||Yes||$18,902.50||$6,400.00|
|Doug Carel||District 14, Office 10||No||$18,805.45||$2,200.00|
|Ryland Louis Rivas II||District 6, Office 1||No||$18,460.00||$5,700.00|
|Emmit Tayloe||District 5, Office 1||Yes||$18,150.00||$7,650.00|
|Blake B. Shipley||District 14, Office 2||Yes||$17,025.00||$825.00|
|Mike Duffy||District 3, Office 1||Yes||$16,707.56||$4,050.00|
|Amy Palumbo||District 7, Office 3||No||$15,742.83||$6,650.00|
|Lee Turner||District 8, Office 1||Yes||$14,200.00||$11,850.00|
|Tom Sawyer||District 14, Office 1||Yes||$13,808.74||$0|
|Russell Singleton||District 4, Office 2||Yes||$13,408.00||$1,250.00|
|Curtis DeLapp||District 11, Office 1||No||$12,557.78||$2,700.00|
|Trevor S. Pemberton||District 7, Office 13||No||$12,492.13||$11,211.29|
|Thomas E. Prince||District 7, Office 2||No||$11,778.00||$10,232.00|
|Misty Miranda Fields||District 12, Office 1||Yes||$11,751.22||$556.84|
|John M. Dunn||District 24, Office 4||Yes||$9,084.46||$7,545.92|
|Thad H. Balkman||District 21, Office 3||No||$9,025.00||$8,725.00|
|Aletia Haynes Timmons||District 7, Office 1||No||$8,427.21||$7,577.21|
|Alan Gentges||District 11, Office 1||No||$8,150.37||$2,298.37|
|William J. Musseman||District 14, Office 13||No||$7,750.00||$5,875.00|
|James E. Walters||District 15, Office 4||Yes||$7,354.00||$0|
|Sharon Holmes||District 14, Office 2||Yes||$7,250.00||$3,800.00|
|Kenneth M Stoner||District 7, Office 4||No||$5,700.00||$0|
|Douglas Alan Kirkley||District 15, Office 2||No||$5,400.00||$0|
|Timothy R. Henderson||District 7, Office 6||No||$4,041.95||$2,421.94|
|Rick D. Westcott||District 14, Office 12||Yes||$3,794.29||$250.00|
|Ray Charles Elliott||District 7, Office 14||No||$3,652.50||$3,000.00|
|Lisa Tipping Davis||District 7, Office 12||No||$3,017.35||$2,864.85|
|Thomas E. Salisbury||District 8, Office 1||Yes||$2,495.60||$500.00|
|Ken Adair||District 24, Office 3||Yes||$2,100.00||$1,000.00|
|Tracy George||District 26, Office 2||No||$1,969.00||$0|
|Eric Nathan Edwards||District 4, Office 3||Yes||$752.50||$0|
|Doug Drummond||District 14, Office 8||No||$500.00||$0|
Misty Fields, an indigent-defense attorney who is running for district judge for Craig, Mayes and Rogers counties, said the cozy relationship that donations can create between an attorney and judge or prospective judge makes her uneasy.
She said this prompted her to send a letter to local attorneys stating she was asking for their vote, but not “for public support of any kind.”
“I think it puts us in a weird position,” she said in an interview.
Fields said she doubts any judge would put their career or reputation on the line by making a court decision based on whether someone gave them a few thousand dollars.
But anything that could potentially tip the scales should be scrutinized, she said. She would err on the side of caution and recuse herself if a potential conflict of interest with a donor arose, she added.
“I think judges are human and, of course, there is the potential for (unethical behavior),” she said. “When I started to run, I didn’t even want to see who was donating to me. But realistically speaking, that’s really hard to do.”
Fields, like most judicial candidates, hasn’t gone so far as to refuse all donations from attorneys.
“I would be remiss to say money doesn’t matter,” she said. “You can only do so much with free social media and you can only knock on so many donors. It’s a sad part of it, but you need some money if you want to blanket an area with signs or newspapers ads.”