MCALESTER, Okla. (AP) - Retired Oklahoma Supreme Court Justice Steven Taylor has always been a fierce advocate of Oklahoma’s Open Records Act - which is something his final decision as a Supreme Court justice proved to strengthen.
While serving as a justice on the Oklahoma Supreme Court, he had the opportunity to write some very strong opinions regarding open records, Taylor told the McAlester News-Capital (https://bit.ly/2k5s9YP ).
The very last opinion he wrote, issued last month, was the eight-to-one opinion ordering that a video showing University of Oklahoma running back Joe Mixon striking a female be made public.
Following the 2014 incident, the city of Norman mounted a legal battle to keep the video sealed - and the lower courts concurred.
Then, in December, 2016, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled that the video of Mixon punching the woman be made available to the media and the public - overturning lower court rulings to withhold the video images and keep them under seal.
“It wasn’t planned to be my last opinion,” Taylor said, it simply worked out that way. He considers it an important opinion for the state.
“I’ve been a hawk on open records,” Taylor said, citing the public’s right-to-know. “This case was not about football - it was about the Open Records Act.”
Taylor remains a strong proponent of open records and the public’s right to know. He said that as a young McAlester mayor, he learned that philosophy from the McAlester News-Capital’s former editor and publisher, the late Owen Jones.
“The more citizens know about what’s going on in City Hall, the better off City Hall is,” Taylor said. “As a judge, the more people know about what’s going on at the courthouse, the better off the judiciary is.”
Taylor, whose retirement from the Supreme Court became effective shortly after rendering the opinion, is looking forward to spending more time back in McAlester - although he never really left.
Even while serving on the Oklahoma Supreme Court, Taylor continued to call McAlester home, driving back to the city on weekends after spending his weekdays serving on the state’s highest court.
Seven out of the nine high court justices lived in Oklahoma City,” Taylor noted. “I wanted to live here,” he said.
He decided to retire at this time for several reasons, the main one being so he could spend more time with his wife, Mary.
“She’s had some physical challenges that’s caused me to be uncomfortable about having her here at home by herself,” Taylor said. “We’ve been married for 38 years and for 38 years it’s been about me,” he said. “It’s time to change that.”
During a freewheeling session with the News-Capital, Taylor reflected on his career, his inspirations and how he hopes to continue helping others. His long career included terms as a U.S. Marine, McAlester city councilor and mayor, private attorney, Pittsburg County associate district judge, District 18 district judge and ultimately, chief justice of the Oklahoma Supreme Court.
His most well-known case continues to be the 2004 state trial of Oklahoma City bomber Terry Nichols. When a change of venue was granted from Oklahoma City, Taylor was appointed to preside over the state trial of Nichols at the Pittsburg County Courthouse in McAlester.
“It was a defining time in my career because of the pressure and responsibility it placed on me,” Taylor said. “It consumed my life for a year. I was determined to get it done fairly.”
Nichols had already been sentenced to life without parole following a 1997 federal trial for crimes including the deaths of eight federal agents.
The state of Oklahoma then charged Nichols with 161 counts of first-degree murder, including a count of fetal homicide, at the state level, with prosecutors trying again for the death penalty. When the defense was granted a change of venue from Oklahoma County, the Supreme Court appointed Taylor to preside over the state trial.
Following a two-month trial that had been preceded by two months of motions and hearings, a Pittsburg County jury convicted Nichols and sentenced him to 161 consecutive life sentences.
“I told Mr. Nichols at the sentencing, ‘the obvious motive for this crime came from your hatred of the government. It’s ironic that the government you hated so much was a government big enough and strong enough to give you a fair trial.’”
Although he’s now retired, Taylor remains a long way from taking it easy.
“I’m not retiring and going home to never be heard from again,” said Taylor, who has a number of projects ongoing, not only in McAlester but in other parts of the state as well.
Next year, Taylor is slated to serve as chairman of the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum. He currently serves as vice-chairman.
Taylor also serves at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation. Starting next January, he will serve as chairman of the foundation’s investment committee.
“I’m also going to volunteer for a couple of times a month at the University of Oklahoma School of Law,” Taylor said. “I’m looking forward to that. These law students are the future of my profession.”
Taylor also has a long association with the Puterbaugh Foundation in McAlester, where he continues to serve as chairman.
“I will be busy with investments of the Foundation’s Assets,” Taylor said. “In the last 25 years, the Puterbaugh Foundation has given away more than $15 million.”
More than $3 million went to McAlester Public Schools and nearly $2 million went to the Boys and Girls Club, Taylor said. Other sizable donations have gone to the McAlester Regional Health Center and Eastern Oklahoma State College.
“I’ll spend a lot of time as chairman of the Puterbaugh Foundation,” Taylor said. “I want to keep J.G. Puterbaugh’s legacy strong. I think he’d be proud of the Foundation and where it is today.”
Taylor also figures there will be other activities coming up as well.
“I want to keep busy,” he said.
Taylor spent 20-plus years as a trial-judge in Pittsburg County, where he first served as associate district judge and then as the District 18 district judge. He followed that with the years he served as an Oklahoma Supreme Court justice, including the two years as the high court’s chief justice.
It all started in McAlester.
Taylor grew up in McAlester and attended McAlester Public Schools.
“I moved here when I was 5 years old,” Taylor said. “This is home.”
He gives the city and the people in it a lot of credit for inspiring his career trajectory.
“I believe in the old African proverb ‘It takes a village to raise a child,’” Taylor said.
He recalled one of his inspirations to pursue a career in the legal profession
“Growing up here, when I was in the fourth grade at Will Rogers School, we took a field trip to the Pittsburg County Courthouse,” Taylor said. During the field trip, students entered a courtroom, where then-District Judge Robert Bell was presiding in the courtroom. Watching the proceedings captivated the young Taylor.
The next day, the other fourth grade class at the school was scheduled to take a field trip to the courthouse.
“I asked my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Watson, if I could go again,” Taylor said. She granted permission and Taylor got a double dose of the judiciary at a young age.
“In high school, after school, I’d hang out in the courtrooms,” said Taylor, relating how he would later meet his father, who worked at the telephone company, and catch a ride home with him.
“Who would have thought I would one day grow up and be on the bench?” Taylor said he may revert to his courtroom visiting days now that he’s retired.
“Judge Bland may look up and see me sitting in the courtroom,” Taylor said, referring to current District 18 District Judge James Bland.
Following his McAlester High School graduation, Taylor went on to attend Oklahoma State University and then the University of Oklahoma School of Law, before making a decision to join the military, where he served on active duty in the U. S. Marine Corps from 1974-1978.
While in the Marines, he trained as a platoon commander and went on to serve as a prosecutor and chief defense counsel, before becoming the youngest judge in the U.S. armed forces in 1977.
Recalling his years of active duty, where he was promoted to the rank of major, Taylor said “It instilled in me a discipline and focus and confidence in myself that really shaped me as a person. It’s stayed with me my whole life. It’s really true what they say - once a Marine, always a Marine.”
When Taylor returned to McAlester he began a private law practice and became involved in city government - first as the Ward 2 city councilor in 1980 and then as the city’s youngest mayor in 1982. In 1985 the city named the Steven W. Taylor Industrial Park in his honor, recognizing his service on behalf of economic development.
Another McAlester native made a move that led to Taylor’s judiciary career.
“Then-Governor George Nigh appointed me associate district judge in 1984,” Taylor said. Taylor won election in 1994 as the District 18 district judge.
During his career as a trial judge, Taylor presided over more than 500 jury trials, as well as thousands of hearings and motions. Taylor’s fair and judicious handling of the Nichols bombing trial as believed to be one of the factors in what led to his next career change.
Governor Brad Henry appointed Taylor to the Oklahoma Supreme Court on September 24, 2004. He served as the high court’s chief justice from 2011-2013.
He noted there’s a lot of difference in the day-to-day activities of a Supreme Court justice and a trial judge.
“Looking back, being a trial judge was my favorite work,” Taylor said. “I liked being in the courtroom, being on the bench - the drama of the judicial system at work. I loved that.
“The Supreme Court was different. It was a very cloistered, monastic life.”
As a Supreme Court justice, Taylor’s main duty was to read the records of cases appealed or brought before the high court, then to write an opinion.
“I enjoyed that, but it did not have the excitement of the courtroom,” Taylor said. “It carried a huge responsibility. We knew there was no appeal from us and we worked hard to get it right.”
“It challenged my writing skills,” Taylor said. “As a trial judge, you do a lot of talking. As a Supreme Court justice, you think all day and if you don’t write in an effective way, you don’t get the job done.”
Taylor wants to share what he’s learned through the years with the next generation of law students at the University of Oklahoma School of Law.
“I’m looking forward a couple of days a month to get to share some experiences with law students and try to inspire them to love the law,” Taylor said.
“What I try to teach younger lawyers is learn to love justice more than victory,” he said. “I understand this is an aspirational goal; every young lawyer needs to learn to love justice more than victory.” Taylor said he will try to pass along that concept.
Although Taylor continues to make his home in McAlester, he’ll also be in Oklahoma City regularly. The Taylor’s son, Wilson Taylor, is team operations manager for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
“That gives me an interest in the Thunder,” Taylor said.
He also continues to serve as stage manager for the induction ceremonies for the Oklahoma Hall of Fame - of which he’s a member.
“That’s my one day a year in show business, keeping order backstage at the Oklahoma Hall of Fame,” he quipped.
Backstage, Taylor works not only with each year’s inductees, but those who are inducting them as well - such as when basketball great Michael Jordan inducted the Thunder’s Russell Westbrook into the Hall of Fame at the 2016 ceremony, to cite just one example.
For now, people in the McAlester area will be seeing the retired chief justice of the Oklahoma Supreme Court around the city a lot more.
“I’m back,” Taylor said. “This is where I’ll always be.”
Information from: McAlester News-Capital, https://www.mcalesternews.com
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