Dozens of bills introduced in the state Legislature this year would have had a "lethal and devastating" effect on Oklahoma's judiciary if enacted into law, the state's chief justice warned judges Wednesday.
Chief Justice Tom Colbert told judges to talk to their constituents — especially local lawmakers — about the impact that some of the proposed changes could have on their ability to carry out the rule of law, such as how judges are selected and retained.
"We can no longer sit at the banks of the courthouse steps waiting for prosperity and normalcy to come to us," Colbert said at the 2014 Judicial Conference in Norman. "Though we are separate in our respective branches of government, all of us are tied together by the shared thread of public service and united by a common vision, and that is the administration of justice."
Colbert highlighted measures that would have eliminate special judges, impose term or age limits or require certain appellate judges to have 60 percent of the vote on a retention ballot. He also spoke about bills that would have redirected millions of dollars from the court's budget, which has been a source of contention between court administrators and the Republican-controlled Legislature.
"We are responsible for the collection of court costs, fines and fees, and out of those ... 75 percent go to the executive branch," Colbert said. "We're doing everything we can from a management standpoint to make the courts work and finance the courts, and it's an ongoing struggle."
A budget accord reached by the Legislature required the courts to tap $10 million to shore up court operations from a separate fund being used to upgrade the court's outdated computer system. Last month, Colbert cited the loss in $10 million from the fund as the reason the state terminated its contract with the top vendor on the computer system upgrade.
On Wednesday, he said the contract with the vendor, American Cadastre, allowed the state to retain the rights to the source code for the new computer system and that the court's technology division would be able to move ahead with rolling out the system upgrades.
"I want to assure you today that we're going forward with a new system that is being developed by us," Colbert said.
Mike Kiss, the interim director of the management information systems division, acknowledged the project upgrade has been plagued with other problems, including repeated scheduling delays, faulty code and difficulty using the new system.
The project involves merging three separate, outdated court computer systems into one central, unified court management system that electronically processes payments, handles court filings, manages juries and makes court records available online to the public.
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