In 1965, scandal burst forth in an unusual setting, the Oklahoma Supreme Court. Three judges were implicated in taking payoffs to decide cases before the court. These three judges were either convicted in court or impeached. IRS inquiries laid much of the groundwork.
One of the guilty judges, N.S. Corn, became contrite and publicly described his misbehavior. He admitted that over about 20 years of taking payoff, he could not recall one single year in which he had not taken a payoff. Professor Phillip M. Simpson of Cameron University has researched one spectacular payoff case in which "Corn . swore that he had received $150,000 in $100 bills ... in a downtown Oklahoma City
meeting .... The attorney wuo had established the pattern with Corn was O.A. Cargill, former Oklahoma City mayor and Corn's friend for 50 years." This corruption obviously reached into the highest levels and included citizens usually deemed quite respectable.
For these and other reasons, it is time to change our laws, get it right and provide for district judges to be appointed, and be subject to removal, in the same manner as appellate judges.
Oklahoma Supreme Court, a 1965 scandal of bribery and betrayal, of fixed decisions, impeachment and prison terms. On another level, it is a story of legal reform fueled by impressive moral courage and tenacity, the story of Harlan Grimes, the lawyer who was disbarred on May 8, 1960, for publicly accusing a Supreme Court justice of taking bribesThe Daily Oklahoman said;
On Dec. 9, 1964, 80-year-old former Supreme Court Justice N.S. Corn, who was serving an 18-month sentence at the federal prison in Springfield, Mo., for income tax evasion, gave his 84-page sworn statement to the government. In it, he detailed his involvement in bribery, implicating Justice Earl Welch, Justice N.B. Johnson and others. Ten days later, Corn was freed early.
That statement found its way to federal judge Stephen Chandler, who shared it with William Berry, a new justice. Berry got G.T. Blankenship, a new Republican representative, to present it to the state legislature.
Denying his guilt and refusing to leave quietly, Oklahoma Supreme Court Justice Napoleon Bonaparte Johnson was impeached by the Oklahoma Senate .
The evidence presented against Johnson was Corn's uncorroborated testimony and a $7,902 discrepancy between Johnson's income and his bank account in 1960 and 1961. Other evidence presented was that, shortly after allegedly receiving a bribe, Johnson had opened a safety deposit box to which his wife did not have access, and that, having previously paid his household bills with cashier's checks, he stopped doing so after March 1962. The Senate also heard that on April 12, 1962, attorney Harlan Grimes had written Johnson accusing him of taking a bribe.
What are the conditions that led to this corruption? The authors suggest that it was both the populist method of electing justices with its campaigns and political contributions, and the influence of the legislature derived from their control of judicial salaries.
There was also a system of rules which caused Harlan Grimes to be disbarred for publishing the truth about justices and bribery. Inadequate campaign financing laws, the lack of a retirement plan for justices and meager salaries exacerbated a natural human tendency to dishonesty and greed.
In the wake of all the publicized corruption, the impeachment, the convictions for perjury and tax evasion, the anti-populist forces that had failed to have their way in the drafting of the original Oklahoma constitution did have their way on July 11, 1965. No longer would the people be able to elect their appellate judges from the field of all qualified lawyers. Interposed would be a judicial nominating commission and the governor. The people would be allowed to vote on retention of justices.
The complete story still has not been told and perhaps it never will be. One thing is certain, however. Harlan Grimes stands for the best in the profession of law. He didn't let the threat of losing his license to practice law stop him from telling the truth.
On a case-by-case basis, some Supreme Court decisions which were proved to have been bought were subsequently set aside. Those cases were reopened .
After the terrible governorships of the late 20s & early 30's, it wasn't until the 1960s that major scandals again surfaced, and then they did so with a vengeance. Three justices of the Oklahoma Supreme Court were removed from office by impeachment or resignation arising from IRS investigations of reports that justices were taking kickbacks for favorable decisions. A powerful former speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives, who had been a dominant figure in state government, was convicted and sent to jail as a result of IRS investigations arising from charges that he failed to report income received in return for political favors. Then in 1975 a former governor, David Hall, was convicted, shortly after leaving office, of misusing his powers of office by trying to direct a state retirement fund to help a friend with a loan. Again, federal officials were the chief agents in cleaning up the corruption.
Harry Holloway, of the Oklahoma Historical Society