Kansas court staffer suspended over Kline tweets

A research attorney for a Kansas Court of Appeals judge was temporarily suspended from her job Friday pending an investigation about tweets she posted during a hearing in former Attorney General Phill Kline's ethics case.

Sarah Peterson Herr works for Judge Christel Marquardt. She's on suspension while an internal investigation is conducted, judicial branch spokesman Ron Keefover said.

The tweets were posted Thursday during a Kansas Supreme Court hearing deciding whether Kline's law license should be indefinitely suspended for his conduct during investigations of abortion providers. The comments appeared around 10 a.m. Thursday when Kline was standing before the seven-member court answering questions related to his conduct while attorney general and Johnson County district attorney.

One tweet commented about Kline's facial expression, saying “Why is Phil Klein (sic) smiling? There is nothing to smile about, douchebag.” Another predicted that Kline would be disbarred by the court for seven years for his conduct.

Herr issued a statement to The Associated Press apologizing for how the public may perceive the judicial system based on her comments. She said that in her duties she had nothing to do with the Kline case nor has she discussed the case with those who do in the judicial branch.

“I didn't stop to think that in addition to communicating with a few of my friends on Twitter I was also communicating with the public at large, which was not appropriate for someone who works for the court system,” Herr said. “I apologize that because the comments were made on Twitter – and thus public – that they were perceived as a reflection on the Kansas courts.”

The tweets were blocked and removed from Herr's Twitter account Friday morning.

“I don't know of any impact on the judges and justices who sat on the case. I think it's a matter unrelated to the case,” Keefover said of the tweeting incident.

Attorney Tom Condit, who's representing Kline in the ethics case, said he was calling for a full independent investigation of all appellate court and Supreme Court research attorneys and clerks to determine the extent of what he feels is bias against Kline among the judicial staff. He didn't specify who should do the investigation but said it needs to be an entity outside the judicial branch.

“Obviously, the fact that it is a clerk for the appellate court sitting in the same building as the Supreme Court is really demeaning to the entire appellate court system,” Condit said. “It's the kind of thing that's really going to impair people's confidence in the fairness and objectivity of the judicial system.”

Five of the seven justices of the Kansas Supreme Court recused themselves from Kline's ethics hearing because they had been involved in previous court opinions that were at the center of his case. Replacement judges were taken from district courts and the Court of Appeals, but Marquardt, who plans to retire in January, did not hear Thursday's case.

Mary Kay Culp, executive director of Kansans for Life, said the tweets are “indicative of an attitude that's pervasive” in the judicial branch – one of bias against Kline, an abortion opponent – and that concerns her.

Keefover said signs were posted in the judicial building in Topeka indicating that cellphones and other electronic devices were not to be used in the Supreme Court chambers. The hearing was broadcast live over the Internet.

The court staff was bound by the same rules as judges and Supreme Court justices about commenting on pending cases, he said. It was not clear if Herr used a state computer to post the comments or her personal devices, Keefover said.

One of her tweets noted that there was an increased police presence in the building for the hearing and that she was glad she wore her identification badge to work. It's not clear how long Herr has worked for the judicial branch.