After 40 years of membership, civil justice attorney Fletcher Handley Jr. was passed the gavel and became president of the Oklahoma Association for Justice (OAJ) on Nov. 2. In the same formal ceremony, this founding partner at the Handley Law Center in El Reno and Oklahoma City was also honored as OAJ’s Trial Lawyer of the Year, which recognizes the contribution attorneys have made to the public interest through trial practice.
Below, the former U.S. Navy aircrewman talks about his vision for OAJ in 2019, workers’ rights, no-fault insurance and why he’s proud to “hang his hat” in Canadian County.
What issues will be most pressing for the OAJ in 2019, and what will be your priorities as the OAJ’s president?
I hope to increase the influence of OAJ and its members with the Oklahoma Legislature and the citizens of Oklahoma. The rights of Oklahomans to seek justice in court have been seriously eroded over the past 15 years or so, and many of those laws had unintended consequences that were detrimental to the entire population. I hope to be involved in moving the pendulum back in the right direction.
You won the Tomy D. Frasier Lifetime Achievement Award in 2015 for your contributions to ensuring the legal rights of working men and women. What has improved in workers’ rights since then, and what challenges remain?
Workers’ rights in Oklahoma took a serious setback in 2014 when the Oklahoma Workers’ Compensation Court was abolished. That resulted in considerably less compensation being paid to workers injured on the job in Oklahoma but gave all but the biggest employers only a modest reduction in rates. So, big business and big insurance were the winners at the expense of Oklahoma workers. We hope to re-establish some of those rights through thoughtful and appropriate legislation.
The ninth annual Oklahoma Trial Lawyers Day of Kindness will provide free turkeys to families in need at the following places and times:
OKC: 8 a.m. today at McIntyre Law Firm, 8601 S. Western Ave.
Norman: 10 a.m. Friday, Bernstein Law Firm, 104 W. Gray St.
Mustang: 10 a.m. Friday at Denton Law Firm, 925 W. Hwy 152
El Reno: 10:30 a.m. Friday at Elks Lodge, 415 S. Rock Island
Tulsa: By appointment only Saturday at the Blue Dome parking lot, 2nd and Elgin
In 1999, you testified before the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee on behalf of the American Bar Association against a proposed National No-Fault Auto Insurance bill. Can you explain your thoughts on no-fault insurance?
I told the Commerce Committee back then that no-fault insurance was a bad idea whose time had come and gone. It sounds good in a utopian society, but again, there are unintended consequences.
When there is no downside to a driver causing an accident, there is less need to be careful. With no-fault, the injured party was to look to their own insurance for compensation, while the negligent party — and his or her insurance — paid nothing. Several states adopted it, but it actually resulted in increased premiums and less compensation for the victims. Not a good combination.
Even though that proposal had bipartisan support, we got it stopped, in part because I pointed out that, if it had passed, every insurance carrier in every car wreck would owe a duty of good faith to their insured, something they do not owe in a third-party system. Bad faith suits would have become the norm. Those pursuing it thought better, and the bill died in committee.
Speaking of legislation, the State Capitol will host a lot of new faces during its next session. What are some issues relevant to the OAJ that you would like to see pursued, and what advice would you give to rookie lawmakers with regard to ensuring the constitutionality of their bills?
The Oklahoma Supreme Court once started an opinion by saying, “We grow tired of reminding the Oklahoma Legislature of the Oklahoma Constitution.” Passing these bills known to be unconstitutional, and then spending the time and resources to try and enforce them, are terrible wastes of Oklahoma tax dollars.
I would like to see the Legislature tackle real problems and get out of the business of trying to legislate social issues. Both the U.S. and Oklahoma constitutions demand equal treatment of all citizens. Promoting a Christian agenda is no more appropriate than promoting a Muslim agenda. We have separation of church and state for a reason.
Finally, while Canadian County shares a border with the more metropolitan Oklahoma County, it remains a more rural locale. Can you share any jokes or country witticisms that have stayed with you over the years?
I don’t have any jokes. At least none that I can publish. A lot of people act like it’s 100 miles of bad road from Oklahoma City to El Reno, but it’s really only about 20 minutes west on I-40.
I can tell you that we have a long history and culture of legal and judicial excellence here. Going back toward statehood, our bar members, like H.L. Fogg, Jim A. Rinehart and Francis Porta all set a standard of excellence that has carried down through the generations. I’ve been to most of the county courthouses in Oklahoma in my 40 years of practice and have generally been treated well everywhere. But I’m very proud to hang my hat in Canadian County.