Lessons Continue After Many Years of Service

Justice Joseph M. Watt thought he understood the duties of the Oklahoma Supreme Court.
Now in his 16th year of service, he admits that he didn’t know as much as he thought he did.
‘‘I had been a trial lawyer and a judge,’’ Watt continued. ‘‘Like many people, I really didn’t have a thorough understanding of the responsibilities and work of this branch of government.’’
This is the ‘‘court of last resort’’ for civil cases in Oklahoma, he continued. ‘‘Our decisions affect the lives and well-being of people, though not as dramatically as those referred to the Court of Criminal Appeals. I think that we, as justices each take our roles very seriously. We take cases presented to us and come down with a decision.’’
Oklahoma is fortunate to have an intermediate Court of Civil Appeals, one in Tulsa, the other in Oklahoma City.
All cases are first sent to the Supreme Court, which are then assigned to the appeals court.
This helps greatly in disposing of a vast majority of cases, Watt said. It also provides this court an opportunity to more closely examine cases retained here to look at points of law and constitutional issues not previously addressed.
While there might be similar roles between the U.S. Supreme Court and the Oklahoma Supreme Court, Watt points out a clear difference.
The Oklahoma court writes four to five times the number of opinions the federal court writes, he said. While the state court does some error correcting, that situation is most often addressed by the appeals court that can reverse decisions, returning cases to the district court.
The appeals court actions saves precious time and resources that are used for the cert cases that come before this court on tough issues.
Justices meet each Monday and Thursday to review and make decisions on cases presented on appeal.
Watt feels the Monday docket is the more important of the two.
‘‘We see 15 to 30 cases each week,’’ he said. ‘‘Unless we grant cert, the case for the litigants is over.
‘‘I don’t ever want to get to the point that this court can take a break starting in July, then return to the job in October,’’ Watt said. That is the schedule for the U.S. Supreme Court.
Outside pressures concern the justice.
He applauds U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor for her ability to bring attention to Americans about attacks that would affect judicial independence.
‘‘As a member of the judiciary, I think this attack, more at the federal level, might destroy the independence of this branch of government,’’ Watt continued. ‘‘One of the most wonderful things our founding fathers did when they created that wonderful document was to make the judiciary a truly independent branch from the executive and legislative parts of government. I think they had that in mind as part of the check and balance on each other.’’
As sitting judges, Watt says their only real defense is to do their jobs to the best of their ability.
He outlined that position during a speech to a Rotary Club in Tulsa.
A former Rotarian, the justice told his audience that his role is to examine the facts and law in each case.
‘‘I told them that if the facts and law were on their side, they probably would win the litigation,’’ he said. ‘‘By contrast, if the facts and law were against them, they probably would lose.’’
Each case is evaluated following the constitution and the law despite any personal feelings.
‘‘In all candor, I approach each case looking at the law,’’ Watt said. ‘‘I have written opinions for the court that were assigned to me, that from a personal perspective I would have written another way. I am restrained by the constitution, the law and fact.’’
The legislative branch of government is there to legislate.
Criticisms of the court most often occur when people disagree with decisions, he said. They take two or three cases they don’t agree with, dwell upon them and don’t have a fair, accurate description of the court’s duties or other decisions they have rendered. It is not possible to pick a few cases and have an accurate picture of what really is happening.
This is a very tense world, different in 2007 than 2005 or 2000.
There is no way to predict what the court will do based on world and social events.
‘‘Our job,’’ Watt continued, ‘‘is to apply facts to the law and the most important thing we have to do is get these cases returned to litigants as quickly as possible. We must do our job efficiently and fairly.’’

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