For many months, elected officials in Kansas have put state courts in the crosshairs, and Gavel Grab has followed the ongoing saga incrementally. It has grabbed national attention. Now The New Yorker recaps this important battle in a piece titled “The Political War Against the Kansas Supreme Court”; it cites Justice at Stake.
Writer Lincoln Caplan depicts a struggle by elected leaders to politicize an impartial court. He discusses efforts to junk merit selection of Supreme Court justices (one proposal was defeated last week, see Gavel Grab, and another would replace merit selection with popular election) and also upcoming retention (up-or-down) elections for five of the seven justices, and he concludes:
“Elections often make judges indistinguishable from politicians, and judging indistinguishable from politics. As of now, when reasonable citizens disagree with rulings of the Kansas Supreme Court, they mainly trust its good intentions and the nonpartisan process that has led to appointment of capable, well-qualified, and conscientious justices for the past three generations. The saving grace for the court is that it generally functions as a court, apart from politics. Kansans should do everything they can to keep it that way.”
Before concluding his essay, Caplan notes that the partisan election of justices “has proved to be a travesty in many states,” and he cites “The New Politics of Judicial Elections” series by JAS and partner groups, including the Brennan Center for Justice, as documenting surging judicial election spending and its impact on fair courts.
Caplan also mentions a JAS/Brennan Center poll in 2013 finding, he writes, that “almost nine out of ten people said that donations to a judge’s campaign and so-called independent spending on TV ads and other forms of electioneering have ‘some’ or ‘a great deal’ of influence over the judge’s decisions on the bench.” Caplan writes about these trends:
“Since 2000, when spending in judicial elections jumped significantly, they have become a case study in the worst aspects of money in politics. Spending by special interests, which are clearly concerned about the decisions that judges reach rather than their capability and impartiality in reaching them, has grown dramatically as a share of total spending. …
“The nature of the campaigns is often as misleading and bad for judges and for the law as their purpose. TV attack ads have often focussed on the criminal-justice records of candidates for election and reëlection as judges, with the intent of making them look soft on crime and scaring voters. … Judicial elections are eroding public confidence in the impartiality of judges, and they are undermining the rule of law.”
An Associated Press analysis of the conflict in Kansas, meanwhile, is headlined “Power struggle heart of debate over Kansas courts.” A Hays Daily News editorial slams a “power grab by Governor Sam Brownback” to “gain control of all three branches of government.” A Garden City Telegram editorial is headlined, “Bully block: Votes proved lawmakers won’t succumb to pressure,” and Jason Probst comments in the Hutchinson News, “Blind justice: Kan. shouldn’t follow the federal model for selection of justices.”