Bar Association questioned the experience and judgment of the new Oklahoma AG
John M. O’Connor, who was chosen by Governor Kevin Stitt on Friday to serve as Oklahoma’s attorney general, lacked the professional skills and integrity to be a federal judge, the American Bar Association has determined. three years ago after a lengthy investigation that included interviews with dozens of prosecutors and judges.
Complaints from the Oklahoma legal community about O’Connor, a 2018 candidate for federal judge in Oklahoma, have focused on his billing methods and fees and his lack of experience in law enforcement. courtroom, according to correspondence between the ABA’s Standing Committee on the Judiciary and the United States Key leaders of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“With regard to professional competence, which encompasses qualities such as intellectual ability, judgment, writing and analytical skills, knowledge of the law and the extent of professional experience, the Committee has concluded that Mr. O’Connor was not qualified, “a letter dated August said. 18, 2018, states.
âThe consensus based on the confidential peer review is that Mr. O’Connor does not have sufficient litigation experience to the depth and breadth of his legal practice to date. . His judgment was also found to be flawed.
âThe committee also assessed the integrity of Mr. O’Connor taking into account his personality and general reputation in the legal community as well as the industry and diligence of the candidate. In this category as well, Mr. O’Connor was found to be unqualified. The confidential peer review uncovered several cases of ethical issues, including openness with the court, evidence of overbilling customers and billing practices criticized by the courts, improper ex parte communication with a court, and improper contact. with the opposing parties to the dispute.
O’Connor spoke to ABA reviewers “and his responses were insufficient to change their recommendations or the final standing committee vote,” according to a letter of September 12, 2018, from the ABA to the leaders of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Oklahoman reported in 2018 on O’Connor’s ABA rating as unqualified and asked O’Connor for comment on specific allegations. O’Connor did not go into details but said: âDespite receiving many positive statements about my competence, experience and ethical practices from lawyers I have worked with and judges before whom I appeared, the ABA chose to repeat its false and misleading words. allegations. “
O’Connor was asked about the ABA rating on Friday when he was sworn in as attorney general and said he was happy to answer the question, but was rushed by a member of the governor’s staff before to respond.
Stitt provided a quote later, saying, “I have no concerns about the opinion of an out-of-state liberal special interest group, and I have the utmost confidence that John O’Connor’s high character, 40 years of legal experience, and willingness to fight for Oklahoma’s 4 million make him the right choice. “
Announcing O’Connor’s appointment on Friday, Stitt said he had cast a wide net to find someone “who was very knowledgeable in law.”
“But more importantly, I was looking for someone with a high moral character, who will do the right things for the right reasons and never for personal gain.”
Stitt said O’Connor is consistently listed as one of Tulsa’s top lawyers and has received the highest peer rating in the Martindale-Hubbell Legal Directory. The Martindale-Hubbell website shows that O’Connor received four reviews, three in 2012 and one in 2014. Two gave it five out of five stars, one gave it four stars and the other gave it 2.8. stars.
Rare rating by the American Bar Association
The ABA’s Standing Committee on the Judiciary, which assesses federal judicial candidates, voted unanimously to assess O’Connor as unqualified; there were 15 panel members at the time. This was only the fifth time that a unanimous non-qualifying rating has been issued by the ABA in more than 60 years of nominee evaluation.
The notation and details of the ABA’s investigation into O’Connor were made public in 2018 as the US Senate Judiciary Committee reviewed the appointment of Tulsa’s lawyer by then-President Donald Trump , for a traveling federal judge position in Oklahoma.
O’Connor’s nomination, along with many others, was not passed until the 115th Congress ended. In 2019, at the start of the 116th Congress, Trump reappointed many of those who had not obtained a vote the year before. He did not rename O’Connor, who withdrew his name from the review in March 2019.
Stitt named O’Connor on Friday to replace Mike Hunter, who announced his resignation in May after the Oklahoman questioned him about an extramarital affair with a government employee. The appointment will last until January 2023, when the next elected attorney general takes office. O’Connor, a Republican, said on Friday he would run for the job. Lawyer Gentner Drummond, who nearly beaten Hunter in the 2018 GOP Primary, is also considering looking for the position.
Excessive Fee Charges
O’Connor, 66, is from Tulsa and received his law degree from the University of Tulsa in 1980. He spent 35 years with Newton, O’Connor, Turner and Ketchum and became a shareholder of Hall Estill when the two companies merged in 2018.
In its assessment of O’Connor’s suitability for a federal judge, the American Bar Association‘s Standing Committee on the Judiciary considered factors that are likely to be of little relevance to his work as attorney general, including his lack of experience as a litigator.
Under the Oklahoma Constitution, the state attorney general does not need to be an attorney. Most of the work in the office is done by teams of lawyers from the Criminal and Civil Divisions, although Hunter was actively involved in the Cleveland County 2019 lawsuit against the opioid makers.
The September 12, 2018, letter from the ABA committee to the leaders of the Senate Judiciary Committee stated, with respect to O’Connor’s professional competence, “Mr. O’Connor’s final jury trial has taken place. in 1997. Mr. O’Connor has very limited experience in federal courts. Mr. O’Connor has virtually no experience in criminal law. Mr. O’Connor’s work has focused primarily on divorces, adoptions and, more recently, receivership cases.
According to the letter, O’Connor “admitted that he had little or no day-to-day interaction with the federal rules of civil or criminal procedure or with the federal rules of evidence.”
Oklahoma lawyers and judges interviewed by the ABA committee were troubled by some of O’Connor’s cases and practices.
According to the letter, two complaints were filed with the Oklahoma Bar Association against O’Connor for charging excessive fees. O’Connor said one of the complaints was filed by another lawyer in retaliation against him; the ABA committee found that the lawyer who filed the complaint against O’Connor has been suspended.
The ABA committee reported that âtwo judges reduced Mr. O’Connor’s fees for being excessive, one in an adoption case and the other in a receivership case. Mr. O’Connor admitted that the courts had reduced his fees as being excessive.
Some of the lawyers interviewed by the ABA expressed particular concern about O’Connor’s work for former Insurance Commissioner John Doak. O’Connor had raised money for Doak.
O’Connor was hired by the Commissioner to represent the office in certain insurance receivership cases, “despite no experience in the practice of insurance law or as a lawyer of record for insurers or claimants. receivership “, according to the letter of September 21, 2018 from the ABA.
Again, the attorneys in these cases raised the issue of O’Connor and his firm charging fees for undue time. Interviewees identified a lack of experience and expertise to properly assess claims. complaints, a strategy to resolve each problem, present unsustainable positions, and repeated refusal to negotiate in good faith.
Regarding the allegations, Doak told The Oklahoman in 2018, âMr. O’Connor is a highly regarded business lawyer in complex commercial, transactional and litigation matters and has been very successful in recovering assets for the benefit of policyholders and applicants in the estates he represents.
In a press release issued Friday, Stitt’s office included a quote from Doak, who said, “John O’Connor has protected the people of Oklahoma as an attorney for several cases working with receivers of insurance with positive results. These cases have been complex and require an incredible understanding of the lawâ¦ Oklahoma will be well served by O’Connor’s dedication to the rule of law and fairness in all fields.
Editor Carmen Forman contributed to this report