Former U.S. Senator, Former Judge: Don't Abandon KS Merit System

Former U.S. Sen. Nancy Kassebaum Baker of Kansas, a Republican, and former federal appeals court Judge Deanell Reece Tacha, who was a Republican appointee, declare in a Hays (Kansas) Daily News op-ed that Kansans “should not abandon” a merit-based process for choosing top judges.

The Republican-controlled Kansas legislature dismantled this year a merit selection system, premised on a nonpartisan judicial screening commission, for helping the governor select Court of Appeals judges. Next week, Gov. Sam Brownback’s first pick under this system, his chief counsel Caleb Stegall, will face a Senate confirmation hearing; confirmation by the Senate is required by the new law. Brownback is a Republican.

The joint op-ed quickly became the topic of a news article in the Kansas City Star, headlined “Kassebaum, Tacha oppose new Kansas method of picking judges.” Tacha, dean of the law school at Pepperdine University in California, recently was one of three attorneys tasked by Republican Sen. Jeff King to develop written questions to supplement the upcoming confirmation hearings.

“One has only to look at events around the world right now to know that one of the cornerstones of the rule of law upon which public trust depends is the open and transparent selection of judges who will model unbiased, impartial, ethical, and informed decision making,” Baker and Tacha write. “The Governor has now named a nominee who is worthy of careful and thoughtful consideration. Our concern is not with any particular nominee, but with the process.” They continue:

 “We cannot let Kansas be the place where the judiciary is under any cloud of suspicion that the selection process is based on anything other than merit and that the judges are answerable to anything other than the law, including the Constitution.

“We urge all those involved in the process of selecting judges to be open, transparent and attentive to the central tenet that trust in the judiciary is a necessary characteristic of a society governed by the rule of law.

“The merit-based selection process works for these purposes. For the good of the state and its people, we should not abandon it.”

An effort in the legislature this year to  move toward a Washington-style judicial selection process for the Kansas Supreme Court did not succeed. Its proponents are expected to try again next year.

(Editor’s note: Baker is in photo to left of two, Tacha is in photo to right of two.)

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