Kansas lawmakers still pursuing judicial selection change

Two influential Kansas lawmakers said Tuesday that they haven’t dropped efforts to win legislative approval this year of a proposal to give the state Senate a role in the selection of state Supreme Court justices.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lance Kinzer of Olathe and his Senate counterpart, Jeff King, said they’ll pursue approval for an amendment to the state constitution on judicial selection after the Legislature reconvenes Wednesday to wrap up its business for the year. Any constitutional change approved by lawmakers would go on the ballot next year for voters’ consideration.

The Senate in January approved a proposed constitutional change to have the governor appoint members of both the Supreme Court and the state Court of Appeals, subject to Senate confirmation. But the measure stalled in the House, and many legislators believed when they began their spring break in April that the issue wouldn’t come up again this year.

Currently, an attorney-led nominating commission screens applications for appellate court vacancies, nominating three finalists, and the governor makes the appointment, with no role for legislators. Defenders of the current system contend it has minimized politics, but critics contend the process is too dominated by attorneys and not open enough.

King, an Independence Republican, said supporters of changing judicial selection are “aggressively looking at” proposals to retain a nominating commission and add Senate confirmation. Kinzer said he’ll continue to work on the issue.

“I haven’t given up on it ... by any stretch of the imagination,” Kinzer said.

Earlier this year, lawmakers approved and Republican Gov. Sam Brownback signed a bill to have Court of Appeals judges appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate, with no role for the nominating commission. That change takes effect in July.

A constitutional amendment – necessary to change the process for the Supreme Court – must be adopted by two-thirds majorities in both chambers before it can go on the ballot.

If lawmakers and voters don’t approve a constitutional change, the state will have different selection methods for each of its appellate courts.

“That is not good for the state of Kansas and not good for anybody,” said Overland Park attorney Lee Smithyman, president of the Kansas Bar Association, which has offered a compromise to restructure the nominating commission.