A bribery scandal led to Oklahoma’s modern court system

Headed to court in Oklahoma?

By G.W. Schulz

The Oklahoma system of courts owes its current composition in part to a corruption scandal that took place during the 1960s. Three justices on the Oklahoma Supreme Court were accused of accepting bribes for over 20 years in exchange for favorable rulings. 

“The scandal had a depressing effect on the judiciary and the practice of law in Oklahoma,” writes the Oklahoma Bar Association about the affair. “Time magazine called the scandal one of the worst in American history and referred to the quality of justice in Oklahoma as ‘the best money can buy.’”

Reforms were instituted by Oklahoma voters in the scandal’s wake. County courts and the so-called “justice of the peace” system were abolished. Civil and criminal cases are today adjudicated by district courts. Unexpected vacancies are filled by the governor, but district judges are otherwise elected by the people every four years. 

Appeals are handled by the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals, the Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals, and the Oklahoma Supreme Court. Judges from each of these non-district courts are appointed by the governor who chooses from a short list compiled by the Oklahoma Judicial Nominating Commission. These judges must then be voted for retention by the people every six years.  

What else should Oklahomans know about how their courts operate? Keep reading to learn more.

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Below is a list assembled with help from the Oklahoma Bar Association of important things you’ll want to know about the state’s courts. The bar association’s mission is to “ensure that every Oklahoman has access to a fair and impartial court system.”

Oklahoma district courts The state of Oklahoma has 77 district or “general jurisdiction” courts, which handle civil and criminal cases. There can be more than one county in a given district. Tulsa County’s district includes Pawnee County, for example. The Comanche County district includes Cotton, Jefferson, and Stephens counties. There are also so-called courts of limited jurisdiction. They typically operate at the city or municipal level and are largely limited to automobile tickets and city citations. 

According to the Oklahoma Historical Society: “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.” 

An Oklahoma jury consists of 12 people, and all of them must concur with one another on a criminal verdict. Decisions in civil matters need just nine concurrences from the jurors.


Courts at the end of the road Oklahoma is unique in that it has three judicial bodies for hearing appeals from the district courts. They include the Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals for civil lawsuits and complaints between parties. Then there’s the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals, which reconsiders criminal convictions. Finally, there’s the Oklahoma Supreme Court, which is made up of nine judges who hear appeals in non-criminal cases. The Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals has 12 judges, and it’s operated in Tulsa and Oklahoma City. There are five judges on the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals, which is also known as the court of last resort for all criminal matters of the state.   

Oklahoma Court of Impeachment While not likely to be familiar to most Oklahomans, the Oklahoma Court of Impeachment can be consequential like any other. Its functions are performed by the Oklahoma Senate, and it operates independent of Oklahoma’s court system. Impeachment charges can only be leveled at Oklahoma’s governor, other officials that are elected statewide, and justices of the Oklahoma Supreme Court. The kinds of offenses that can trigger a call for impeachment include moral turpitude, incompetency, chronic drunkenness, corruption, and neglect of duty. The accused can be removed from office if found guilty during the impeachment proceedings. Two-thirds of Oklahoma’s state senators are required for a conviction to take place. 

Oklahoma Court on the Judiciary The court contains nine judges who are appointed, and it was created by voters in the wake of the judicial scandals of the 1960s. This is another, smaller court that would tend to be obscure for most people outside of Oklahoma law. If it’s a judge who has been accused and convicted of committing crimes, the Oklahoma Court on the Judiciary is the platform for removing that person from the position. Those offenses include corruption in office, gross neglect of duty, offenses involving moral turpitude, habitual drunkenness, and gross partiality. Judges may also be forced into retirement if they are determined to be physically or mentally incapable of performing the job. 

Oklahoma Court of Tax Review It’s known as a special court with limited jurisdiction and hears complaints from people who are unhappy about how much they must pay for tax assessments and levies. The court of tax review hosts three judges. According to state statutes: “For each case brought before the Court of Tax Review, the Chief Justice of the Oklahoma Supreme Court shall assign the case to a judicial administrative district in which no property that is the subject of the case is located. … A majority of the three-judge panel shall be required to render a decision in each case, [and] decisions in each case shall be made within 12 months of the case being assigned to the three-judge panel.”  

Workers’ Compensation Court of Existing Claims This one seeks to untangle the resulting disputes when a worker in Oklahoma is injured on the job. The court’s name has changed, and it’s now known currently as the Oklahoma Workers’ Compensation Commission. The commission also helps regulate businesses that choose to fund their own workers’ compensation obligations. 

According to its site, the commission exists “to assist the injured worker in his or her ability to return to work with the most limited interruption to work and family life as possible.” It has some 50 employees including administrative law judges who process cases in Tulsa and Oklahoma City. The three full-time commissioners are confirmed by the state legislature and appointed by the governor. Among other things, they hear appeals of rulings made by the administrative law judges.  

What about federal courts? You might be thinking about the courts that reach beyond Oklahoma to Washington, D.C. Indeed, Oklahoma’s state court system is reserved only for civil disputes and criminal arrests involving Oklahoma state laws. The U.S. government has its own criminal and civil statutes and its own system for enforcing them. Instead of state district courts, you could find yourself in one of three federal district courts for the eastern, northern, and western districts of Oklahoma. 

Appeals of these federal civil and criminal cases are sent to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit. Federal district courts are composed of judges who were confirmed by the U.S. Senate following a presidential nomination. According to the U.S. Justice Department: “Judges may hold their positions for the rest of their lives, but many resign or retire earlier. They may also be removed by impeachment by the (U.S.) House of Representatives and conviction by the Senate.”