The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Local News

August 10, 2010

Debate stirs over electing Kansas Supreme Court

TOPEKA, Kan — The process Kansas uses to select its state Supreme Court justices may soon become an issue in this year’s race for Kansas governor.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Sen. Sam Brownback will unveil changes in the next month that he believes need to be made in the judicial selection process, spokeswoman Sherriene Jones-Sontag said Monday.

A spokesman for Brownback’s Democratic challenger, state Sen. Tom Holland of Baldwin City, said the current system seems to work well but the campaign would study it further if voters expressed interest.

Currently, a nine-member commission nominates three candidates for each Supreme Court opening to the governor, who makes the final selection. Five of the commission members are lawyers elected by other lawyers. The other four are non-lawyers appointed by the governor.

Kansas is the only state where attorneys, nominated by attorneys, hold a majority on the selection committee.

“You have basically 2.7 million people in Kansas who have no vote in that election (of the attorneys on the commission) and 9,000 people who get to vote,” Stephen Ware, a law professor at the University of Kansas, told The Wichita Eagle.

Twelve other states use the nomination process, but attorneys aren’t a majority of the committee. Voters select judges in 22 states; in another 13 states, the governor nominates the judges, who are confirmed by one or more chambers of the Legislature.

In South Carolina and Virginia, the Legislature appoints judges.

State Rep. Lance Kinzer, R-Olathe, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said he would like the state to choose Supreme Court justices in a way similar to the federal process, where the president picks a nominee, who is confirmed by the Senate.

“Our current system gives attorneys too much control over the nominating process,” said Kinzer, who is an attorney.

The federal process guards against politics or cronyism, Kinzer told the Eagle.

Glenn Braun, president of the Kansas Bar Association, defended the current system. He said having four of the attorneys from different congressional districts ensures a geographic diversity on the commission. And he noted that commission members are limited to two terms.

“Is there a problem with the way it is done now?” said Seth Bundy, spokesman for Holland.

While some groups disagree strongly with decisions the courts have made, no recent scandal has suggested that the system is broken, said Burdett Loomis, political science professor at the University of Kansas.

“The Supreme Court has functioned pretty well, by and large,” he said.

Altering the process would require changing the state constitution, which would need a two-thirds vote in the House and the Senate and approval of the governor. Then voters would have to approve the change.

“We’ve had many years in a row where we’ve had good hearings on the issue,” Kinzer said. “There has always been significant support for the idea of reform, but not support that would rise to the level of two-thirds.”

 

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