A Rotarian Fighting For A Rotarian

Posted in: Reflections Articles

Mike Turpen  “A Rotarian Fighting For A Rotarian” 

Of course, it’s no secret to anyone reading these words that I’m a Democrat. But I’ve always tried to approach my job from the perspective of what’s right and what’s wrong. A case in point, I believe, goes back to 2001, when Oklahoma’s two Republican senators, Jim Inhofe and Don Nickles, nominated four of their fellow party members for district judgeships in the state. One of the nominees was Joe Heaton, who went to the same church I did in Oklahoma City. Another was Steve Friot, also from OKC, whose wife taught my daughter. There was Claire Eagan, in Tulsa, who then had the opportunity to become the first woman ever to serve as a judge in the northern district. The other nominee was Muskogee’s Jim Payne, one of my favorite judges of all time, who helped me by coming forward with powerful testimony back in the late 1970s, when I prosecuted a local judge in my role as district attorney.

I often found myself in disagreement with Senators Nickles and Inhofe on a variety of policy issues but had a great deal of respect for the individuals they chose to fill the judicial vacancies in our state. And that’s exactly what I said in an endorsement letter I wrote and mailed to several US senators, including majority leader Tom Daschle, judiciary committee chairman Patrick Leahy, and my friend Hillary Rodham Clinton – all Democrats. The four nominees may have been from the opposing political party, but they were four good people, and I believe that the letters I wrote helped expedite their confirmation.

A few months later, someone showed one of those letters to Senior US District Judge Ralph J. Thompson, a hugely influential man in our part of the world. In Oklahoma City, where he’s headquartered, we affectionately and respectfully refer to him as the Judgemaker. He’s a man who knows how the system works. And he picked up the phone and called me. “Mike,” he said, “what you did for those judges with that letter is the most statesmanlike thing I’ve ever seen.” I’ve always been flattered that someone of his stature thought enough of what I did to ring me up and say what he said. It’s one of the nicest phone calls I’ve ever received.

A few years later, I had the opportunity to do the same thing for Jerome A. Holmes, who had been nominated by George W. Bush and supported by Republican senators Inhofe and Tom Coburn for a judgeship on the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. Again, Holmes was a Republican. But because I happened to know him, believe in him, and respect him – as was the case with the four earlier judges – I once again sent a letter of recommendation to Democratic members of the US Senate, who would, of course, be either confirming or rejecting him. In my concluding paragraph, I wrote, “Jerome enjoys widespread support among Oklahoma Democrats and Republicans alike…He is a dedicated professional who would be committed as a judge to fairness and justice, rather than ideology. “After much debate and scrutiny, Jerome Holmes ended up as the first African American on the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. The vote was 67-30, and only a dozen of those voting for his confirmation were Democrats. Did my letter help sway any of those twelve senators? I don’t know, but it apparently impressed Inhofe, who has never been a particular fan of mine, nor of Democrats in general. During the debate over Holmes on the Senate floor, Inhofe said this about me: “He is a very partisan Democrat. I don’t think he has ever said anything nice about a Republican in his life except Jerome Holmes.”

Of course, Mr. Inhofe was simply indulging in a bit of characteristic hyperbole to make his point. Jerome Holmes made his own point in a different way when he himself wrote me a letter, thanking me for “repeatedly and strongly” supporting him and expressing gratitude for my letters to the senators on his behalf. All I was trying to do was think in terms of right and wrong, not right and left, and then act on my decision in a positive way. And while it takes a considerable suspension of my disbelief to say this, perhaps Senator Inhofe was simply using different words to do the same thing.

Excerpt from TURPEN TIME: The Wit and Wisdom of Mike Turpen

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