Gavel Grab

Kansas Newspaper: JAS Urges Against More Politics in Picking Judges

As Kansas debates proposed changes to the way state Supreme Court justices are chosen, Justice at Stake said it would be a mistake to adopt a more political selection process, the Lawrence Journal-World reported.

JAS-LogoInstead of using the existing merit selection method for choosing Kansas justices, Gov. Sam Brownback recently voiced support for holding contested elections or allowing direct appointment by the governor, subject to Senate approval (see Gavel Grab).

Chief Justice Lawton Nuss of the Kansas Supreme Court said switching to an appointment system with similarities to the federal model is not necessarily a good idea, given the politics that plays out in Washington, D.C. over judicial nominations. And he said direct elections pose the biggest dangers: “You have justices, or judicial candidates, going around the state asking for money,” Chief Justice Nuss said. “They spend a lot of time campaigning for that office.” Read more

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Kansas Supreme Court Under Political Attack Again

Critic say Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach is injecting politics into the Kansas judicial branch with criticism of the quality of the state Supreme Court judges.

According to Hutchnews.com, Kobach is calling for a change to the merit selection system of choosing state Supreme Court justices – this time making claims that Kansas federal judges are better qualified because they go through a Senate confirmation process.

That assertion is simply not true say fair court advocates.

“Secretary of State Kobach is once again meddling with the judicial branch and trying to bring politics into our courts. Our current system was put in place in 1956 following a political scandal involving appointments to the high court by the then-governor in what became known as the ‘Triple-Play.’ Our current selection system has proven to be the best way to ensure quality judges are on the bench and the threats of politicization are minimized,” Ryan Wright, Executive Director of Kansans for Fair Courts, told Gavel Grab.

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Chief Justice Nuss: Kansas’s Current Supreme Selection Process Works

Chief Justice Nuss

Chief Justice Nuss

In his State of the Judiciary, Kansas Chief Justice Lawton Nuss appealed to the legislators to move funds earmarked for upgrading court technology to cover the expected Judiciary budget shortfall of $2.5-3 million. An article by The Topeka Capital Journal reported that Nuss also took a stand against Governor Sam Brownback’s call to alter the process of selecting state Supreme Court justices after Wednesday’s speech.

Kansas Supreme Court justices are currently chosen by the governor, who picks from three qualified candidates chosen by a nonpartisan panel of lawyers and non-lawyers. Brownback proposed a different system last week: either direct election for Supreme Court Justices or the governor’s choice subject to Senate approval, eliminating the need for the panel. After the speech on Wednesday, Nuss told reporters that these options, which Brownback touts as being “more democratic” than the current system, work poorly in other states.

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Brownback Suggests Changes to State Supreme Court Nominations

brownbackGovernor Brownback proposed changes to the way Kansas Supreme Court judges are chosen, ksn.com reports. During his State of the State on Thursday, Brownback suggested the state needs a “more democratic” process to choose judges.

Currently, a commission led by attorneys screens applicants, and presents three names to the governor to choose. Supporters of this system say it prevents partisan politics. Brownback made two suggestions for new systems to implement. Judges could compete in contested elections, or the governor could appoint his own choice to the state’s high court, subject to Senate approval. An amendment to the State Constitution would be necessary to make either change.

Current Supreme Court members, who were present at the speech, did not comment on Governor Brownback’s suggestions. Justice Eric Rosen, however, reportedly flinched visibly when direct elections were mentioned.

A 2013 poll conducted by Justice at Stake showed that 61% of Kansans oppose changing the way justices are selected.

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Editorial: Kansas Legislature Should Protect Court Funding

Chief Justice Nuss

Chief Justice Nuss

“Speedy action by the 2015 Legislature can help stave off furloughs and ensure the courts are open when Kansans need them this spring,” an editorial on kansas.com said.

The state court faces a $3.6 million budget deficit and Chief Justice Lawton Nuss wants to use “electronic filing management funds” to close that gap. The Legislature would need to lift restrictions on the uses for those funds. Nuss said that diversion of the funds would not harm the e-courts project, because it had already taken in more money than the project intended to use this fiscal year.

The editorial concludes that the Legislature should give the judiciary the flexibility it needs to offset its current budget deficit.

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Kansas Court Panel: Public School Funding Inadequate

State_court_panel_says_Kansas_isn___t_sp_2411750000_12051494_ver1.0_640_480A three-judge panel of the Shawnee County District Court has found the level of funding for Kansas public schools to be inadequate under the state Constitution.

“We find the Kansas public education financing system – through structure and implementation – is not presently reasonably calculated to have all Kansas public education students meet or exceed the Rose factors,” the panel concluded, referring to a Kentucky case that has been followed by courts nationwide, according to the Wichita Eagle.  “It is inadequate from any rational perspective of the evidence presented or proffered to us.”

The Kansas Supreme Court had found the levels of public school funding unconstitutional, and referred the matter to the lower court, in March (see Gavel Grab for background). The latest decision was expected to be appealed. It was criticized as politically motivated by some Republicans, yet commended by some Democrats and educators. Read more

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Kansas Report Cites JAS on Increasingly Politicized Retention Elections

KansasRetention (up-or-down) elections for top state judges are increasingly becoming high-stakes political battles in Kansas and elsewhere, reported a Wichita Eagle article that quoted Justice at Stake about the trend’s implications.

“You’re going to have more judges looking over their shoulder wondering whether there’s going to be an outside deluge targeting them depending on their rulings,” said Bert Brandenburg, JAS executive director.

“This spells trouble for fair and impartial courts,” said Jim Robinson, a lawyer  who heads the legislative committee of the Kansas Bar Association. “We do not want a basketball referee to reverse his call when the crowd boos. And we do not want courts to bend to political criticism and pressure.” Read more

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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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