Opinion: Will Kansas Tradition of Judicial Independence Survive?

When five Kansas Supreme Court justices stand for retention (up-or-down) election in November, it will occur against a backdrop of attacks on fair and impartial courts by legislators and the executive branch, Davis Merritt observes in a Wichita Eagle op-ed.

There could be dire results, he warns: “2016 could be the year that Kansas’ tradition of judicial independence dies, a victim of excessive political ideology and civic indifference.”

Merritt seeks to roust Kansans out of any “indifference” by arguing that traditional conservatives ought to be supporting judicial independence, not bashing it. “But today’s slash-and-burn Kansas conservatives value slogans such as ‘unelected, activist judges’ and ‘judicial overreach’ over true personal liberties. Their legislators seem more interested in preserving their prerogatives than protecting the republic, and their executive branch seems more interested in imposing a narrow ideology than supporting individual rights.”

The author raises his alarms in part because a leading Republican legislator, Senate President Susan Wagle, recently told a GOP audience about the upcoming judicial election. With the state’s high court expected to rule before then on a longterm dispute over funding of public K-12 education, “[h]er implication” about a retaliatory popular vote on Election Day “was clear,” he writes. Merritt concludes:

“Traditionally, 100,000 to 200,000 fewer people vote in retention elections than in the other contests higher on the ballot. That must change, because allowing the judiciary to become, by default, the next captive of the radical right would take us around a corner and into a dark alley that has no exit for anyone.”