Campaign finance records show that at least two sitting Sedgwick County, Kan., judges have made contributions to the state’s leading anti-abortion political action committee — after hearing cases involving abortion-related issues.
Judges Eric Yost and Jeffrey Goering each gave $100 to the Kansans for Life PAC in 2011, according to the group’s finance disclosure statement. In January 2011, Goering issued a temporary order prohibiting a Wichita doctor from using her office for abortions because her landlord believed it would create a nuisance.
And in the mid 2000s, Yost was involved in the long-running legal dispute between former Kansas attorney general Phill Kline and George Tiller, an abortion provider who was shot to death in 2009.
Neither judge’s donation is considered improper under current Kansas laws and regulations.
“I believe it is appropriate for elected judges to donate to certain causes they support, and I’m proud of my support for Kansans for Life,” Yost said in an email to The Kansas City Star.
Asked if he thought judicial donations are appropriate, Goering’s email statement to The Star contained a one-word answer: “Yes.”
But some legal scholars, and at least one Kansas lawmaker, say that donations to any political action committee by a sitting judge present at least the appearance of a conflict of interest and that the practice deserves scrutiny.
“Judges are held to the highest conduct standards, and they should be,” said Adam Skaggs, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s law school. “The best practice is going to be to avoid contributing to political organizations because of the inevitable appearance of partiality that those kinds of donations create.”
Kansas Sen. John Vratil, a Republican member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and an attorney, said he wants to examine the state’s rule for political contributions by judges.
“It can’t be good for the judiciary because it reflects on their impartiality,” Vratil said.
The Kansas Code of Judicial Ethics broadly prohibits activities that appear to present a conflict of interest.
“A judge shall act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the independence, integrity and impartiality of the judiciary,” the code states.
But the code also specifically allows judges chosen in partisan elections to make contributions to political organizations “at any time.”
Yost, Goering and the other judges in Sedgwick County — as well as 13 other Kansas judicial districts — are chosen in partisan elections. Both Yost and Goering were unopposed as Republicans in their last elections in 2008. Their seats on the bench are up for election this year.
Judges in 17 other Kansas jurisdictions, including Johnson County, are appointed to the bench and then face retention elections. The ethics code is silent on political contributions by “merit system” judges, which some experts say means donations might be proper for some judges in Kansas but not for others.
The different systems in Kansas are in part an accident of history. After decades of electing all of the state’s judges, Kansas moved toward a partial appointment system in the late 1950s. Each jurisdiction was eventually given the choice between partisan elections or appointment and retention votes.
A similar split exists in Missouri. Most counties elect judges on a partisan basis, while some judges — including Jackson County — are appointed to the bench but must face voters on a regular basis for retention.
Missouri judges elected on a partisan basis are allowed to donate to political parties, but they “shall not engage in any other political activity except on behalf of measures to improve the law, the legal system or the administration of justice,” according to the Missouri code of judicial ethics.
Judges appointed and retained in Missouri, however, are prohibited from making political donations or taking part in political campaigns.
In 2002, the high court voted 5-4 to overturn a Minnesota law prohibiting judicial candidates from speaking on some public issues. Those candidates, the majority said, have a First Amendment right to speak, a concept that has since been expanded to other judicial speech regulations across the country.
In that 2002 case, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented, writing for the minority that judges are different from other candidates.
“Judges are not politicians, and the First Amendment does not require that they be treated as politicians simply because they are chosen by popular vote,” she wrote.
Records show other judges in Sedgwick County have made donations to political candidates, often in $10 or $25 amounts.
Mary Kay Culp of Kansans for Life said her organization believes the donations from Yost and Goering are proper.
“If the campaign ethics commission doesn’t mind and the Supreme Court doesn’t mind — it’s a free country,” she said.