On Thursday, December 29, 2011 many residents of Pushmataha, Choctaw and McCurtain Counties were saddened to hear of the death of District Judge Willard Driesel. Driesel, 58, passed away after a lengthy battle with several health issues, including cancer, in Tyler, TX on December 11, 2011. Judge Driesel will be remembered by many as a fair and professional administrator to the courts and to many as a true and loyal friend.
At his request, he was cremated. A memorial service took place on Monday, January 2, 2012 in Broken Bow.
Driesel was know by his associates as one who took his role as judge seriously and tackled court problems head on. He simplified the system and kept the docket moving. He also was known for his open-door policy, taking time to listen to people and using that information to make better informed decisions and actions.
“It was his desire to see the county change and to help people who were in the bond of drug addiction,” said Vicki Justus, who had worked for three judges during her 25 years as the McCurtain County Court Clerk. “He had a heart for helping people who wanted help, a real heart for the community. He was very compassionate, a man of integrity. I cannot put into words how I felt about Judge Driesel. He was a true friend to me and we had a very good working relationship.”
Those who had dealings with the courts appreciated his impartiality and jurors appreciated his willingness to answer questions they ahd about the judicial system. He also had a good relationship with judges, clerks, and others he has worked with, say his associates. They noted his professionalism in considering their opinions and consulting them about court system problems.
“Professionally, he ws focused and made sure everything was fair. He was easy to work with and you knew his decisions were based on the laws and the facts,” said Associate District Judge Michael DeBerry. “All the judges work very closely together and Judge Driesel was always available. Any major decisions regarding the court system he took up with the others judges. He let all the judges be judges and did not interfere with our rolls in individual cases.”
Judge Willard Driesel came to live in McCurtain County in 1986 to practice law and did so for 26 years. His background included 11 years in law enforcement. He was a police officer in Oklahoma City area and headed the Drug Task Force in District 17. He prosecuted drug cases in this district, and was Oklahoma’s Drug Prosecutor of the Year, all before becoming a judge. He was also a State Certified Instructor for law enforcement officers in Oklahoma.
After his election as district judge 17 years ago, Driesel made changes that made jury service easier, developing a jury questionnaire and shortened the time jurors had to wait. Judges in other districts had taken note of Driesel’s system and many asked him to help them set up similar systems in their areas.
He also established the first Drug Court System in S.E. Oklahoma and it has been considered one of the best systems in the state. The McCurtain County Drug Court has been used as a model by other counties and judges who have established drug courts. For these reasons, Driesel was very proud of the role he played in getting this program established in this area.
In his 17 years as District Judge, he has presided over 103 jury trials and 34 murder trials, including death penalty cases. Out of the 103 jury trials, only 2 cases had been reversed. He also presided over the 2 largest civil cases in the history of McCurtain County.
Four years ago he was selected “presiding judge” to supervise all state courts in the 9 counties that make up S.E. Oklahoma. He was the first judge from this district to ever be selected for that position.
Three years ago he was appointed by the Secretary of State to serve on the Trial Court on the Judiciary. He was the first judge from this district to ever be selected for this position.
The death of Judge Driesel will vacate his elected seat as presiding Judge over Pushmataha, Choctaw and McCurtain counties and will result in the activation of a selection process for a new presiding District Judge.
According to Steven Taylor, Chief Justice of the Oklahoma Supreme Court, the process of naming a successor to Judge Driesel’s position will begin with an announcement by the Oklahoma Judicial Nominating Commission (JNC). Justice Taylor said the JNC would soon publish on the Oklahoma State Courts Network (OSCN) website, a notice seeking applications for the District Judge seat. The notice will also contain a deadline date at which time the application process would be closed.
The JNC would then review the applications and schedule interviews with each applicant. At the conclusion of the interview process, the JNC will submit the names of the top three applicants to Governor Mary Fallin. Taylor said it is customary for the Governor to personally interview the three candidates before naming her selection. Names of the applicants will be made public at the conclusion of the application period.