JAS Board Member, Others Oppose Changes to Kansas Merit Selection

A Justice at Stake board member, the chief judge of the Kansas Court of Appeals, lawyers and the Kansas Bar Association urged Kansas legislators on Thursday to reject proposed changes that would bring politics back into the selection of top state judges.

Landon Rowland (photo), the JAS board member and chairman of Lead Bank in Kansas City, Mo., cited results of a JAS-commissioned poll. It showed that 61 percent of Kansas voters, including majorities of Republicans and of Democrats, oppose rewriting the state Constitution to change the process for choosing Kansas Supreme Court justices (see Gavel Grab).

“We depend on a free market system. Small business depends on a fair and impartial judiciary,”  Rowland testified, according to an Associated Press article. He said the Kansas court system has a reputation for fair, impartial and qualified judges.

Chief Judge Thomas Malone of the Court of Appeals told legislators, “There is no evidence that anything is broken that needs to be fixed.”

Also testifying in support of the existing merit selection process was Lee Smithyman, the Kansas Bar Association president. “This is a system that works,” he said. “This is a system that generates an excellent judiciary.”

Meanwhile, Chief Justice Lawton Nuss, in an interview with WIBW radio, warned against adopting change that “opens the door to politicizing the judicial system.”

The legislature is considering a proposal to scrap the judicial nominating commission process that delivers recommendations to the governor of highly qualified candidates for appointment to the Court of Appeals and the state Supreme Court. It would have the governor appoint top judges subject to Senate confirmation. Gov. Sam Brownback, who has endorsed this approach, also has spoken of possibly shifting to direct election of judges for high-level courts.

According to a Wichita Eagle blog, critics of the existing merit-based system are unhappy with judicial decisions. “The battle over judicial selection is largely fallout from the unending controversy over school finance,” the blog reported, with Brownback and likeminded legislators disagreeing with court directives to boost school funding.

A separate Wichita blog post spotlighted the JAS-commissioned Kansas poll. It was headlined, “Poll finds support for status quo on selecting justices.” 

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