When Kansas legislators rejected a proposed shift in the way state Supreme Court justices are selected, it was a “resounding victory for fair and impartial courts,” Justice at Stake Interim Executive Director Liz Seaton said on Thursday.
The state House rejected a bill to junk merit selection of the justices and place direct appointment authority in the governor’s hands, subject to state Senate confirmation (see Gavel Grab). Seaton said:
“We applaud today’s bipartisan vote by Kansas legislators affirming a judicial selection system that has worked well for the state Supreme Court for decades.
“Legislators voted against turning back the clock. Kansans want their judges selected based on qualifications, not partisan politics. This is a resounding victory for fair and impartial courts.
“Importantly, today’s vote also shows that lawmakers saw through efforts to discredit merit selection by partisans who were willing to play fast and loose with the facts. Contrary to the claims of some, Kansas is hardly alone in the way it chooses its top justices. Two dozen states and the District of Columbia use merit selection to choose judges for their highest courts, and many of those states also have a majority of attorneys serving on their nominating commissions.”
BULLETIN: A proposed constitutional amendment to change the way Kansas Supreme Court justices are chosen failed on Thursday when the House voted 68-54 to approve it, falling short of the two-thirds vote necessary, The Associated Press reported.
With Republicans divided, the Kansas House cast a 69-53 preliminary vote on Wednesday in favor of a proposed constitutional amendment to dump the merit selection of state Supreme Court justices. The vote fell 15 votes short of the two-thirds majority needed for the measure to move to the state Senate. A final House vote was expected today.
“We need to increase the power of the people to select a third co-equal branch of state government,” urged Rep. James Todd, a Republican leading the pro-change faction. The proposal would scuttle a nonpartisan screening commission and give the governor direct appointment authority, subject to state Senate confirmation. As critics of the court have grown increasingly unhappy with certain court rulings, they have pushed for a change in the selection method.
“Just a year ago, our governor was quoted in the Topeka Capital-Journal as saying that we need to ‘change the way we select judges so we can get judges who vote the way we want them to,’” said Democratic Rep. John Carmichael, according to The Lawrence Journal-World. “That is the epitome of the wrong attitude for judicial selections. We don’t select judges who will vote the way we want them to. We select the brightest, the best, folks who have judgment, and let them make important decisions.” Read more
Political partisans are gaming the system in Kansas in hopes of giving the governor “inordinate power over the Kansas Supreme Court,” a Hutchinson News commentary by Jason Probst warns on the eve of a state House vote on changing the way justices are selected.
When Attorney General Derek Schmidt briefed state legislators on Tuesday about a death-sentence case in which the state high court was reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court (see Gavel Grab), the case was “used again to inflame lawmakers’ emotions in the hope that they will support a bill that will come to a vote on Thursday,” Probst writes. Read more
House Republican leaders in Kansas plan to gauge support this week for proposals that could give the governor more influence in selecting state Supreme Court justices, the Associated Press reported.
Republican Gov. Sam Brownback has called the current merit selection process for Kansas justices undemocratic, but defenders of fair and impartial courts say he and his conservative allies are trying to fashion a high court that is more to their liking.
Last year, a House committee approved two competing proposals to change judicial selection, teeing them up for possible consideration by the full House. One would adopt partisan election of the justices, while the other would eliminate a judicial screening commission and make the governor’s appointments subject to state Senate confirmation.
In the Arkansas City Traveler, meanwhile, an op-ed by Mark Krusor, attorney for Cowley County, urges, “Let’s keep politics out of our courts.” Citing spending data compiled by Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice, Krusor writes, “Kansans don’t want outside special interests and the national political parties determining who is protecting our rights on our Kansas Supreme Court.”
A bill addressing the threat of a court shutdown over a dispute about the power of the Kansas Supreme Court won final approval by the state legislature on Thursday, according to the Associated Press.
The bill repeals a law passed in 2015 that had the potential to undermine the entire court system’s budget (see Gavel Grab). The repealed law was backed by Republican lawmakers and was associated with lawmakers’ unhappiness with court rulings.
But the conservative lawmakers said they never intended to shut down the courts and voted almost unanimously in favor of the funding bill. The only voice of dissent in either chamber was one no vote by a lone Republican who said that “the process for selecting Supreme Court justices is ‘largely unaccountable to our democratic process.’”
The Kansas Senate was preparing to vote on Thursday on a House-passed bill that would keep the entire state court system funded, following an end to a legal dispute over court funding, The Associated Press said.
Such a Senate vote would dispel a cloud cast over this funding by legislation passed last year, widely viewed by defenders of fair and impartial courts as a political attack on the judiciary (see Gavel Grab for background). Read more
Several controversial court decisions are likely to stir up criticism in some quarters of top Kansas judges when they seek retention (up-or-down) election this year, columnist Martin Hawver writes in The Ottawa Herald, and perhaps more attention to proposals to change how top judges are selected.
Hawver suggests there’s a lot more to serving as a good judge than matching the philosophical leanings of a governor, who currently appoints top Kansas judges. “It’s probably the broad background and understanding of the law that is important for a judge, not philosophical leanings or beliefs to shape opinions,” he writes.
To learn more about court rulings on abortion law and on death sentence cases by Kansas courts, and efforts of the governor and elected allies in the legislature to revise or eliminate merit selection of state Supreme Court justices, click here for Gavel Grab.
Elected allies of Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback and the governor himself are working to renew their push for a change in the way state Supreme Court justices are selected, by stirring up outrage over court rulings that have sparked controversy.
Defenders of fair and impartial courts are pushing back by maintaining the criticism is politically driven and intended to fashion a more conservative court, according to an Associated Press article. Kansas justices currently are selected through a merit selection process. Brownback has advocated dumping a judicial screening commission that recommends appointees to the governor, and replacing it with either the election of justices or gubernatorial appointment subject to state Senate confirmation.
While the state Senate voted in favor of the latter route in 2013, it did not gain enough support to win approval in the House. The AP article said that in the House, “Democrats and moderate Republicans have retained enough votes to deny GOP conservatives the two-thirds majority they need to pass a constitutional change on how Kansas Supreme Court justices are selected.” Read more
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, voiced support again this week for a constitutional amendment to change the way Kansas Supreme Court justices are chosen.
A Wichita Eagle editorial said such a step “could make the court partisan and less impartial.” The justices currently are chosen through a merit-based system that combines appointment by the governor and retention (up-or-down) elections if they seek a new term. Read more
The Kansas Court of Appeals divided 7-7 on Friday on an appeal involving a controversial anti-abortion statute. The deadlock means a lower court’s decision, blocking the statute from going into effect, will continue to stand, The Kansas City Star reported. An appeal to the state Supreme Court is likely.
The appeals court’s split decision, delivered on the 43rd anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, said abortion rights are protected by the Kansas Constitution independently of the U.S. Constitution, according to The Associated Press.
The statute at issue bars a second-trimester abortion procedure and is called “Unborn Child Protection from Dismemberment Abortion Act.” The lower court ruling last year was among court decisions criticized by Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback as politically driven; Brownback has called for a “more democratic” selection process for judges. Read more