Gavel Grab

Editorial: More Transparency Needed in Picking KS Appeals Judges

Gov. Brownback

Gov. Brownback

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback jettisoned transparency when he picked a Court of Appeals judge last year under a new law that dumped a judicial nominating commission, a Lawrence Journal-World editorial says.

Now that Brownback is preparing to nominate a new judge to the appeals court, for confirmation by the state Senate, he ought to adopt a significantly more transparent process and at least make public the names of candidates seeking the judgeship, the editorial contends.

This would be in keeping with the emphasis that Brownback lent in his reelection campaign this year to the importance of a governor’s naming judges for Kansas courts, it says. And it notes that Brownback is considered likely to push for the legislature to remove the role of a judicial nominating commission from the current selection process for Kansas Supreme Court justices.

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Kansas Governor Denies Rights to Legally Wed Same-Sex Couples

brownbackKansas Governor Sam Brownback is denying rights to same-sex couples even though they are now legally allowed to marry in Kansas.

KCUR reports that Brownback won’t offer any of the benefits heterosexual couples receive, including such things as name changes on a driver’s license or employee benefits for gay and lesbian state workers.

“There is still considerable legal ambiguity on the topic of same-sex marriage,” Eileen Hawley, a Brownback spokeswoman, told the radio station. “Once that ambiguity is gone, the governor will direct state agencies to comply with applicable laws.”

Court decisions over the past few weeks have been confusing. Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt has said the unions are legal, which has many upset about the delay in applying the law.

“It’s clear that they don’t respect what’s coming from the federal courts and they will continue to discriminate and deny gay and lesbian couples their constitutional rights as long as they can,” Tom Witt, executive director of Equality Kansas said.

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Group Urges Kansas to Say No to Court’s Marriage Ruling

The Supreme Court issued an order this week allowing marriages for same-sex couples to proceed in Kansas. In response, the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) urged Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback to “reject the idea that Kansas must abandon marriage because out of control federal judges say so.”

The nation’s highest court issued its order after a federal judge had struck down a Kansas ban on marriage for same-sex couples, in following an earlier ruling by the Tenth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

According to a NOM press release, the group called on Brownback “to order local clerks to refuse to issue marriage licenses that violate Kansas law defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman.” Read more

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Changes to Existing Judicial Selection Systems Ahead?

In several states that have recently held judicial elections or that will hold them next year, there is talk of changing the way judges are selected:

  • After controversy in Kansas over a state Supreme Court ruling that set aside death penalties for two brothers, state legislators may be ready to give the governor more control over appointments of high court justices, reported. Two justices who voted to vacate the death penalties faced an ouster drive but won retention on Election Day.
  • Some people are talking about the possibility of Cole County, Missouri switching from judicial elections for lower court judges to a merit-selection system after a national political organization pumped a six-figure sum into this month’s election, the Jefferson City News Tribune reported.
  • “Voters will have chance to remake Pa. high court” next year, the Associated Press reported. “Misconduct in PA’s highest court leads to calls for reform,” stated a headline for, sponsored by Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a JAS partner organization.
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Two Targeted Kansas Justices Are Retained by Voters

KansasKansans voted to retain two state Supreme Court justices, Eric Rosen and Lee Johnson, for new six-year terms on Tuesday. They were targeted for removal in an eleventh-hour drive that focused on their participating in vacating death penalties for two convicted killers.

Retention of the justices was opposed by Kansans for Justice, a group organized by relatives of the murder victims, and by the Kansans for Life Political Action Committee, a pro-life group, according to the Wichita Eagle.

The anti-retention effort spilled over into partisan politics and the Kansas governor’s race.

“This was a transparent and cynical attempt to manipulate the public’s sentiment about a horrific crime for political gain. To their credit, Kansas voters are not so easily fooled,” JAS Executive Director Bert Brandenburg said in a statement. “Judges are asked to make difficult calls based on the law. If judges can’t rule without thinking twice about threats of political retaliation it will become harder for them to uphold the Constitution and protect everyone’s rights.” Read more

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Kansas Retention Debate: Ex-U.S. Judge Tacha Speaks Out

As Kansans prepare to vote Tuesday on whether to retain two Supreme Court justices, a retired federal judge who was reared in Kansas, Pepperdine University Law School Dean Deanell Reece Tacha, has joined the discussion.

The judiciary “was specifically designed to stand apart from the political fray to make certain that the rights of each person are protected equally and fairly,” Tacha said in an open letter to Kansans, according to the Topeka Capital Journal. The judiciary ought to be “completely separate from any prevailing political winds” and “independent of any outside influence,” she wrote.

An eleventh-hour effort to remove Justices Eric Rosen and Lee Johnson is based on their participation in a 6-1 court majority that vacated death penalties for two brothers convicted of multiple killings, who will be re-sentenced. Some relatives of the victims are opposing the justices’ retention, and they have been joined by others, including Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback. To learn more about the debate, see Gavel Grab.

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Pariente: ‘Assault on a Pillar of Our Democracy’ in Kansas

Justice Pariente

Justice Pariente

A high court judge from Florida who faced a special interest and partisan drive against her own retention (yes-or-no) election in 2012 is speaking out about an effort to unseat two Kansas Supreme Court justices over a single ruling in a criminal case.

At, Florida Justice Barbara Pariente has an op-ed voicing concern about the effort to deny retention to Justices Eric Rosen and Lee Johnson. They participated in a 6-1 state Supreme Court ruling that overturned death penalties, but not the underlying convictions, for two brothers convicted in a quadruple killing. The victims’ families are part of the anti-retention effort. Justice Pariente writes:

“While the pain of the victims’ families cannot possibly be overstated, it also appears that politicians may be trying to use this case to advance themselves and their agenda. This callous, cynical use of a true tragedy for partisan gain is an assault on a pillar of our democracy.

“The Constitution guarantees every American due process and a fair trial, even when upholding these rights is unpopular. I fear that these protections may ultimately be threatened when judges who stand for election come under campaign pressure.”

Read more

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Groups Push Back Against Anti-Retention Effort in Kansas

supremeFirst, an effort was announced to deny retention to two Kansas Supreme Court justices over a ruling that voided death penalty sentences for two brothers in a quadruple killing (see Gavel Grab). Now a legislator’s spouse is seeking to deny retention to a Kansas trial judge over his ruling in a case involving marriage for same-sex couples.

Defenders of fair and impartial courts are pushing back. The Kansas Bar Association, Kansas Association for Justice, Kansas Association of Defense Counsel, Kansas Appleseed and the League of Women Voters of Kansas jointly issued the following statement:

“On Election Day, Kansas voters will fulfill a significant responsibility; we will vote in the retention elections for Supreme Court Justices. Unlike legislative races, these are not meant to be partisan political contests. Our democracy rests on a foundation of fair courts, free from political interference. Judges running for retention must be evaluated for their ability to impartially apply the law in all cases. We urge voters to seek out information, available from the 2014 Kansas Judicial Review Survey, on the qualifications of justices and judges running for retention this year, before casting their votes on November 4.”

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On Campaign Trail, Kansas Court Ruling a Hot Topic

Sam Brownback, Paul DavisThe final, contentious weeks of the political season are seeing heated debate in Kansas over the state Supreme Court’s voiding death penalty sentences handed two brothers in a notorious quadruple killing. The brothers still face life prison terms in a separate killing.

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback on Thursday endorsed removing two of the justices in the 6-1 court majority in the case, the Associated Press said; the pair, Justices Eric Rosen and Lee Johnson, are the only court members standing for retention in November. The Republican Party chairman called for defeating the two justices.

“I support the families and what they’re pushing — the non-retention vote,” Brownback said. Family members of some of the crime spree victims are advocating against retention of the justices. Brownback is running for reelection, and his campaign has begun a TV ad critical of the Supreme Court and saying opponent Paul Davis stands with “liberal judges who let the Carr brothers off the hook.” Read more

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Two Kansas Justices Face Anti-Retention Effort Over Ruling

Justice Rosen

Justice Rosen

Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to consider throwing out a Kansas Supreme Court ruling that struck down death penalty sentences handed two brothers in a notorious quadruple killing (see Gavel Grab).

Petitions to reinstate death penalties for Jonathan and Reginald Carr were filed with the nation’s highest court this week, according to the Wichita Eagle. The state Supreme Court’s voiding three of each man’s four capital murder convictions generated controversy, and now, some of the victims’ kin have created an organization devoted to defeating in November two of the justices who participated in the ruling. The group is called Kansans for Justice.

Justice Johnson

Justice Johnson

Only Justices Lee Johnson and Eric Rosen, of the court’s seven members, are on the retention (up-or-down) ballot, according to a different Wichita Eagle article. 

Mark Befort, brother of one of the victims, told the newspaper of the devastating pain his family suffered in both the crime spree and through re-living it when the defendants were tried in court. He said the state’s highest court “has voted to either eliminate these verdicts or force all of the family members and surviving victims to have to once again re-live those crimes in court, or see these guilty verdicts erased. Read more

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