Justice at Stake: Brownback Statement on Court Not Accurate

Kansas-Flag-2Governor Sam Brownback of Kansas has made an inaccurate statement about the way qualified judges are chosen for the Kansas Supreme Court, Justice at Stake said on Wednesday. JAS Director of State Affairs Debra Erenberg said:

“Last night Governor Sam Brownback made a misleading statement about Kansas’ longstanding merit selection system for its Supreme Court. In calling Kansas ‘the only state in the country’ that chooses its justices the way it does, Brownback overlooked the two dozen other states that use a merit system for this purpose. Merit systems, with their  nonpartisan nominating  commissions, are designed to minimize partisan political pressure on the selection process. In fact, Governors in many states that don’t have a formal merit selection system in place have seen the wisdom of this process and created nonpartisan nominating commissions to ensure high quality appointments. Unfortunately, the Governor’s statement last night created a false impression that Kansas has a unique system, and is somehow out of step with other states.  This is simply not true.”

In his State of the State speech, Brownback criticized Kansas’ system for choosing state Supreme Court justices as undemocratic and said, “Kansas is the only state in the country where the selection of Supreme Court justices is controlled by a handful of lawyers,” according to The Wichita Eagle.

Brownback, who has been critical of the Kansas courts, apparently was taking aim at the screening commission that recommends qualified candidates to the governor for appointment. “Brownback wants to do away with the commission, giving the governor the authority to choose justices, with the consent of the Senate,” The Kansas City Star reported. In his speech, Brownback proposed a constitutional amendment to change the way justices are selected but did not spell out the specifics. The current commission has five lawyers chosen by licensed Kansas attorneys and four lay members picked by the governor.

The Justice at Stake news release noted, “Merit states employ nominating commissions made up of lawyers and non-lawyers in differing proportions by state, some with a majority of lawyers as is the case in Kansas, and others with a slim non-lawyer majority.”

Meanwhile, legislators have introduced a bill to eliminate the linkage established in a 2015 statute between money for operating the courts and a separate, 2014 law reducing authority of the Kansas Supreme Court, according to CJonline.com.

Last month, the Kansas Supreme Court struck down the 2014 law removing the court’s authority to appoint chief district judges. This ruling came as a victory for defenders of fair and impartial courts, who contended the new state law represented retaliation by elected politicians unhappy with court decisions.

Left unresolved, however, was the more recent statute mandating that entire state court system shall be defunded if the appointment authority law was voided. A judge had put this measure on hold temporarily, giving legislators a chance to address it this winter.