A Kansas school-funding lawsuit brought in 2010 may be heading back to a lower court pending a Kansas Supreme Court ruling.
According to The Associated Press, school districts are being asked to declare in writing if they want a three-judge panel in Shawnee County District Court to have more hearings in the case.
In December, that panel ruled school funding to be inadequate under the state Constitution (see Gavel Grab) after the Kansas Supreme Court had referred the matter to the lower court. The panel has a hearing scheduled for Thursday.
Many believe attempts to weaken the Kansas Supreme Court through legislative actions, including changing the merit selection process, stemmed from this ruling. New polling data that shows the majority of Kansans favor the current merit-based system for choosing state Supreme Court justices.
Justice at Stake released new polling data today that shows the majority of Kansans favor the current merit-based system for choosing state Supreme Court justices.
Key findings of the new poll of 898 likely voters shows:
- A whopping 76 percent oppose moving to a federal-style system, like the system recently pushed through the legislature for the court of appeals, for the state Supreme Court. Only 14 percent support such a move. Opposition to this proposal has increased since Justice at Stake first asked the question in January 2013, when 61% of voters rejected such a constitutional change.
- Only 31 percent support amending the constitution to provide for contested elections for Supreme Court justices and only 32 percent support increasing the vote required in order for justices to retain their seats to 67 percent.
Meanwhile, an opinion piece in The Garden City Telegram argues that attempts to change the selection process are a power grab by Gov. Sam Brownback who is unhappy with recent school finance rulings.
“…Kansans should be appalled by the governor’s disregard for an independent judiciary, separation of powers and checks and balances.”
Kansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Lawton Nuss cites a former Texas Chief Justice in his argument for keeping the merit selection system for Kansas Supreme Court judges.
In an op-ed in The Wichita Eagle, Nuss notes that the Kansas legislative and executive branches have expresses admiration for many things “Texan,” which might have something to do with the attempts to eliminate merit selection.
Chief Justice Nuss agrees with an opinion piece co-authored by former Texas Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson, who has “firsthand, conservative-credentialed, in-depth knowledge of elections for Supreme Court justices.”
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback’s office says his budget proposal pared back by $53 million over two fiscal years the judicial branch’s budget request because the latter hadn’t been submitted in the correct form.
Democratic state Rep. John Carmichael has a different take, according to the Lawrence Journal-World. He thinks the cuts came as part of a protracted fight pitting the executive and legislative branches against the judicial branch.
“Everything in this Statehouse is related to something else,” Carmichael said. “There is a battle between the judiciary, which seeks to enforce the Constitution of the State of Kansas, and the Legislature, which refuses to adequately fund public education, and certainly that is the root of the conflict.” Read more
Kansas legislators ought to resist “ruining a Supreme Court selection process with a 57-year record of judicial independence and impartiality,” a Wichita Eagle editorial declares about proposals to dump merit selection for choosing the justices.
Whether through direct appointment by the governor or through contested elections, two alternatives proposed to merit selection, the measures would politicize the high court, says the editorial. In the first instance, it says, Kansans could get a court “whose members were chosen for political pedigree rather than legal knowledge and experience,” or in the second, a court dragged down into “partisan muck.” Read more
Dan Glickman, a former U.S. Representative from Kansas, issued a defense of merit selection of state Supreme Court justices. In a Wichita Eagle op-ed, Glickman said “the legal business climate of state courts,” ranked fifth by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, is strengthened by merit selection.
Moreover, he says implementing the federal system for selecting justices “would consign Supreme Court appointments to closed door, backroom politics.” Political courts, he continues, have not been successful on any level:
“… [I]f Kansas political leaders considered the partisan breakdown in our nation’s capital, they might reconsider their embrace of a Washington-style system for choosing judges. And New Jersey, a state using the federal-style system for judicial nominations, experienced such partisan gridlock that a high number of vacant judgeships in the state’s busiest county forced the suspension of complex civil trials several years ago.”
A 2014 change in Kansas Supreme Court authority is being challenged in the courts as more significant changes advance in the state House.
The Associated Press reports that two bills to change how Kansas Supreme Court justices are selected sailed through the House Judiciary Committee on Monday. The proposals would make the process more political, either implementing a Federal System of direct gubernatorial appointment subject to state Senate approval, or partisan elections.
A state House committee has approved rival proposals to dump the merit-based selection of Kansas Supreme Court justices, yet questions linger as to whether either would command the two-thirds support needed to pass the full chamber.
One of the proposals would institute contested, partisan elections for the state’s highest court. The other would give the governor unilateral appointment authority, subject to confirmation by the state Senate, in a process similar to the Washington-style model of judicial selection.
Critics of the existing system contend it is undemocratic given that lawyers comprise a majority of members on the screening commission for court applicants, according to the Associated Press. The system’s defenders say the proposals would politicize judicial selection, and that Gov. Sam Brownback and his allies want to exert more control over choosing top judges. Read more
As Kansas legislators debate changes to judicial selection, many legal experts are expressing their support for the current system (See Gavel Grab for background). Chief Judge Merlin Wheeler and Ken Buchele joined in the chorus Wednesday at an event held by the League of Women Voters, reported on by the Emporia Gazette.
Buchele, a former member of judicial nominating commissions, explained that one proposed change, partisan election of judges, may cause judges to show bias to campaign donors:
“If you were in a lawsuit with a large company and you thought you had been wronged in a situation and a lawsuit was filed, and you walked into a courtroom and the person sitting on the bench, the judge, had been elected by public election, the same way we elect on legislators and governor. And you knew that judge had had a very strong financial campaign gift from the guy that you are suing. Now what kind of situation would you feel that you were in?”
Both Judge Wheeler and Buchele encouraged people to reach out to their legislators, and embolden them to vote against all proposed changes. “They are in a tough position,” Buchele said. “They need a lot of support if they are going to buck the governor.”
Defenders of Kansas’ existing system for the merit-based selection of state Supreme Court justices described it on Wednesday as a proven method for choosing an impartial court removed from political influence. Critics urged alternatives to make the court more accountable to the public.
The clash of views came at a Kansas House Judiciary Committee hearing on proposed constitutional amendments that would scrap a decades-old judicial nominating committee that screens candidates for the high court, then makes recommendations to the governor for appointment. One measure would give the governor direct appointment authority, subject to state Senate confirmation; another would shift to open elections for Kansas justices and for Court of Appeals judges. Read more