The Kansas Senate has defeated a bill to replace merit selection of judges on the Court of Appeals with appointment by the governor, subject to Senate confirmation.
On Thursday, the Senate voted 22-17 against the proposal after its critics denounced the specter of politicizing the judiciary. The state House had passed the proposal last year (see Gavel Grab), but it died in the Senate afterward.
This week’s vote “showed Democrats and moderate Republicans still have misgivings about changing how Court of Appeals judges and state Supreme Court justices are selected, despite concerns that the process is dominated unfairly by lawyers and not open enough to the public,” an Associated Press article said.
“This motion is an egregious effort to politicize judicial appointments,” said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, according to a Topeka Capital-Journal article. “The judiciary as an independent and co-equal branch of government was designed to provide stability against the political winds.”
“I’m willing to take a look at many of the options,” said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Tim Owens, a Republican. “What I’m not willing to do is to allow for something to come forward that gives one branch firm control over another branch of government.”
Under current law, a nominating commission screens candidates for vacancies on the Court of Appeals and recommends three finalists to the governor. Voters later decide in up-or-down retention elections whether the judge can stay on the bench. Kansas’ system is similar to merit selection systems in other states yet it alone has lawyers picked exclusively by other lawyers comprising a majority — five of nine members — of the screening commission.
Supporters of the legislation contend it would give officials who pick judges more accountability to voters.
Kansas for Life, an anti-abortion organization, framed the Senate vote as a decision with implications for rulings on abortion law. Critics of merit selection for choosing both Court of Appeals and state Supreme Court judges started their effort with the the Court of Appeals.
The process for naming judges to the Court of Appeals is laid out in state law and can be changed if a majority of lawmakers support it. Selection of Supreme Court justices is dictated by the state constitution. Amending it requires two-thirds majorities in each chamber followed by a statewide vote.
According to the AP, governors who were abortion-rights Democrats appointed five of the seven justices and nine of the 13 Court of Appeals judges.