Kansas Editorial Opinions Cool to Revising Merit; JAS Poll Cited

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback’s proposal for the governor to pick top judges and for the state Senate to confirm them, eliminating a merit-based selection system, is taking a hammering from some editorial boards and pundits. A poll of Kansans by Justice at Stake has contributed to the debate.

This year’s session of the Kansas legislature “had barely convened before lawmakers were in committee hearings on things like co-opting the state’s judiciary,” said a Kansas City Star editorial. Regarding Brownback’s proposal, the editorial continued, “the people may disagree. A poll from Justice at Stake, … found that 61 percent of respondents favored the current system over Brownback’s preference.”

In a Topeka Capital-Journal column, Tim Carpenter focused on the JAS poll and Kansans’ majority opposition to revising the state Constitution to give the governor and legislators more power over picking Supreme Court judges.

“Kansans don’t want to tamper with their constitution,” the column quoted Bert Brandenburg, JAS executive director, as saying. “They want their judges chosen based on their qualifications, not partisan politics. They’re not comfortable vesting so much power in the hands of a governor, even one that they like.” To view the poll, click here; to see the JAS statement, click here.

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. Critics protest that lawyers outnumber non-lawyers on the screening commission.

“Composition of the state nominating commission is top-heavy with lawyers from the [Kansas Bar Association,] but there is risk in placing appointment to these courts in hands of one person — especially if a heavily partisan Senate doesn’t conduct a rigorous review,” Carpenter concluded.

 A Lawrence Journal-World editorial, meanwhile, was headlined “Court maneuver: There’s no reason to throw out a judicial selection system that has been working in Kansas for more than 50 years.”

The editorial cited a report co-authored by the Brennan Center for Justice showing an explosion in special interest spending on state Supreme Court elections. “Judicial campaign fundraising more than doubled between 2000 and 2009,” the editorial noted, citing data from the report. Justice at Stake also co-authored the study.


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