Editorial on Independent Judiciary: ‘We Mess With It At Our Peril’

welcome-to-kansasA scathing editorial in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch decries politicians’ attacks on the Kansas Supreme Court and warns of the perils of tampering with fair and impartial courts, whether through legislation or judicial elections.

The editorial is headlined, “When two branches of government declare war on the third.” It chronicles the fury of Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback and allies in the legislature with most of the state Supreme Court’s justices, “who insist on applying the law instead of rubber-stamping whatever the Legislature passes.” The editorial says:

“Politicizing the judiciary is always a bad idea, but Kansas is taking a bad idea to new depths. The state Senate last month passed a bill making ‘attempting to usurp the power’ of the Legislature or executive branch an impeachable offense.”


Opinions: Efforts to Politicize State Courts Mirror Washington

The parallels between efforts to politicize the nation’s highest court in Washington — in the fight over a Supreme Court vacancy — and similar political efforts to influence state courts are getting more attention from analysts.

Kansas has been an increasingly contentious battleground, especially with legislation advancing to expand the legal grounds for impeachment of state Supreme Court justices (see Gavel Grab). In The Garden City Telegram, Julie Doll writes about that effort and says, “At both the state and federal level, politicians are working to make sure that judges do their bidding in court.”

A stalemate between Republican Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey and the Democratic-led state Senate over a state Supreme Court nomination by Christie (see Gavel Grab) has also sparked analogies with the struggle in Washington, where leading Senate Republicans are refusing to consider the U.S. Supreme Court nomination of Judge Merrick Garland. (more…)

Author: Individual Liberties at Risk From Judicial Impeachment Bill

The potential harm from a Kansas bill expanding the legal grounds for impeachment of state Supreme Court justices is taken to a Code Red alert by author Davis Merritt in a Wichita Eagle blog.

“SB 439 is designed to destroy the concept of co-equal and independent legislative, executive and judicial branches that is so vital to everyone’s liberty,” Merritt writes. Borrowing from constitutional scholar Alan Hirsch about impeachment, Merritt continues, “Under it, justices would serve at the pleasure of the legislators rather than as independent adjudicators. And when that happens, we will have reached Hirsch’s ‘triumph of power politics and partisanship over democracy.’” (more…)

N.Y. Times Spotlights Partisan Attacks to Reshape Courts, Cites JAS

New-York-Times-logoAcross the nation, court decisions are coming under partisan attack whether in judicial elections or attempts by politicians to reshape courts to their liking, The New York Times reports from Kansas, virtually a ground zero of these attacks:

“TOPEKA, Kan. — Washington is locked in partisan warfare over control of the Supreme Court. But it is hardly the only place. Look at the states, where political attacks on judicial decisions are common and well-financed attack ads are starting to jar the once-sleepy elections for State Supreme Court seats.”

In Topeka, the article zeroes in on an effort to broaden the grounds for impeaching Kansas Supreme Court justices (see Gavel Grab) and expected efforts to dump in retention (up-or-down) elections this fall four justices “regarded as moderate or liberal.” The article also touches on big spending in the Wisconsin Supreme Court race under way — quoting Justice at Stake and Brennan Center for Justice ad spending data — and in Pennsylvania last year, a political assault on the Georgia Supreme Court and an expansion measure labeled by critics as “court-packing” in Georgia: (more…)

Kansas Editorial: Time to Let Judicial Impeachment Bill Die

Capitol-from-NWLegislators who pushed to passage in the Kansas Senate an overly broad definition of the legal grounds for impeaching state Supreme Court justices made their point and now should “let the issue die,” a Lawrence Journal-World editorial says.

The editorial calls the measure a “transparent legislative power grab” and “a barely veiled warning to Supreme Court justices who have declared the state’s school finance system unconstitutional.” The measure tramples on the separation of powers and is likely unconstitutional, it added.

For the good of Kansas, the House ought to let the legislation languish, the editorial contends. It is titled, “Impeachment antics.” The bill’s definitions of grounds for impeachment include any judicial effort to usurp the authority of the legislative or executive branches. For background and explanation of Justice at Stake’s opposition to the measure, see Gavel Grab.

Kansas Justices Discuss Job, Political Challenges

The Wichita Eagle reports that Justice Carol Beier and Chief Justice Lawton Nuss of the Kansas Supreme Court spoke with and answered questions from the public this weekend at an event where they addressed some of the challenges they face in their job.

According to the newspaper, the very first questions asked by the crowd were on the judicial impeachment bill (see Gavel Grab) and the recent efforts to change the way justices are selected (see Gavel Grab).

In response to the impeachment bill, Justice Beier said that while she has faith in the legislature to do the right thing, they have a “fairly interesting if not hostile environment to work in outside the building.” Addressing the potential selection reform, Chief Justice Nuss responded by praising the current system for its rigorousness, something he thinks the systems currently under consideration by the legislature might not offer:

“It was a very thorough vetting. It’s for people who are serious about it, and it’s competitive and you get a chance to see the credentials of the people who are applying. If you don’t have that system, you don’t know how that person who is picked stacks up.”

Addressing these developments, an opinion piece in the Garden City Telegram argues that they constitute a sustained attack on the court. The newspaper writes that Gov. Brownback and Republican lawmakers’ “interest in controlling the judiciary defies a basic principle of liberty in separation of powers that provides checks and balances among three co-equal branches of government.”

“In a powerful rebuke of the Republican faction in charge, a recent statewide poll showed far more dissatisfaction with Brownback and the ultraconservative-controlled Legislature than the Kansas Supreme Court,” the article concludes.

Commentary: Kansas Bill Would Remove Check on Legislators

Kansas_quarter,_reverse_side,_2005Kansas legislators pushing a bill to expand the grounds for impeachment of state Supreme Court justices are effectively “moving to intimidate and eliminate the last legal check on their ideology,” commentator Jason Probst writes in The Hutchinson News.

Approved by a Senate panel last week (see Gavel Grab), the proposal has stirred up a hornet’s nest of criticism in state editorial and op-ed pages. Probst’s column goes further than many others to note that a prominent Republican legislator, Judiciary Chairman Jeff King, opposed the bill.

King reminded his colleagues last week of a different bill passed by the legislature two years ago to remove from the state Supreme Court the authority to name chief district judges. The Supreme Court struck down the law, finding it unconstitutional. (more…)

Opinion: Political Attacks on Kansas Courts to Continue

Following yesterday’s approval of a bill expanding the grounds for impeachment of Kansas Supreme Court Justices (see Gavel Grab), Ed Flentje, a professor emeritus at Wichita State University, explores the ongoing attempts by Governor Sam Brownback and Republican lawmakers to take political control of the Kansas Supreme Court in the Arkansas City Traveller.

According to Flentje, they have been brazen and overt in their efforts to “pack the court with partisan judges.” As evidence, he quotes Brownback:

“In 2012 Governor Sam Brownback badgered Tim Owens, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, with a clear message: ‘let us change the way we select judges so we can get judges who will vote the way we want them to.’” (more…)

Editorials Scald Judicial Impeachment Bill in Kansas

A torrent of scalding editorials is greeting a proposal by Kansas legislators to expand the grounds for impeachment of state Supreme Court justices. The proposal is grabbing national attention too, with a piece in Esquire quoting concerns raised by Justice at Stake (see Gavel Grab). Here’s a roundup:

  • Charles Pierce excoriates in Esquire the conservative “experiment in Kansas” and its appetite for power; Justice at Stake’s Director of State Affairs Debra Erenberg is quoted as saying, “The attacks on the courts in Kansas have definitely been coming faster and more furious than in other states.”
  • Kansas City Star editorial: “This latest assault on the judiciary smacks of desperation. … [T]his bill isn’t about fairness. It is about intimidating judges and diminishing the chances for Kansas citizens to successfully contest legislative actions in court. … Other lawmakers with a greater respect for our foundation of government should deny [sponsors] this power grab.”
  • Wichita Eagle editorial: The bill “is the latest act of aggression by the state’s conservative legislative leaders and governor against the independent, impartial judiciary. … Setting the measure aside would signal that the legislative branch properly respects both its role and the judiciary’s.”
  • Manhattan Mercury editorial: “If [legislators] could set their egos aside and realize the harm this latest venture would cause, they would drop it and realize they won’t have a conflict with the Supreme Court if they heed the Constitution.”

Commentary: It’s About Power, Not Judicial Accountability, in Florida

A proposal to impose term limits on appellate and Florida Supreme Court judges “is just the latest in a series of naked power grabs” by those intent on reducing judicial independence, two defenders of fair and impartial courts write in the Florida Politics blog.

The opinion comes from Eric Lesh of Lambda Legal and Mark Ferrulo, executive director of Progress Florida. They are members of the Florida Access to Justice Project. The House recently approved the proposal but its prospects in the state Senate are uncertain (see Gavel Grab). (more…)