Brownback won't release names of court applicants

Gov. Sam Brownback said Thursday he won't publicly disclose the names of applicants for a new seat on the Kansas Court of Appeals because it could discourage other qualified candidates from seeking the position.

Brownback said in a statement he gave "serious consideration" to releasing the names after critics said a new system to select judges for the state's second-highest court is less transparent that the one it replaced. The League of Women Voters of Kansas is among critics of the new system.

Under a law that takes effect this month, the governor will appoint Court of Appeals judges subject to state Senate confirmation. Under the previous system — still in place for the Kansas Supreme Court — a statewide commission led by lawyers screened applicants and named three finalists, with no role for legislators after the governor's appointment.

The commission had released the names of applicants for the Court of Appeals and Supreme Court since 1981. In recent years, the commission also opened its interviews with candidates to public, though its deliberations on naming finalists were closed.

But Brownback noted in his statement that the new system for choosing the Court of Appeals is modeled on the system for picking federal judges, where potential candidates' names are confidential.

"It is important that we have the strongest possible pool of qualified applicants to serve our citizens," Brownback said. "It is clear that disclosing the names of potential nominees would hurt applicant pools for future selections."

He and other Republicans who pushed this year to change how Court of Appeals judges are selected argued that the nominating commission is dominated by a small group of attorneys, without giving voters much of a role. Five of the commission's nine members are attorneys elected by other attorneys.

Supporters of that older process contend it minimizes the politics involved in judicial appointments and focuses on candidates' qualifications.

The Legislature created a 14th seat on the Court of Appeals, effective this month, and Brownback plans to take applications until July 31. He has until Aug. 29 to nominate a new judge. The Senate will have 20 days to act after the Legislature convenes its next annual session in January, or the appointment will be considered confirmed.

On Tuesday, Brownback spokeswoman Eileen Hawley said the governor's office had become concerned that the public focus was on the process for selecting the new judge and not on finding a qualified applicant. She told reporters that the governor would release the names, then retracted that statement and said the move was only under discussion.

"In checking with those who have already expressed interest in applying, there is a strong preference for confidentiality which we will respect," the governor said Thursday.

The process for picking state Supreme Court justices hasn't changed because it's spelled out in the Kansas Constitution rather than state law.

A constitutional amendment must be approved by a two-thirds majority in both houses and then a simple majority of voters in a statewide election. Supporters of changing the selection process for the Supreme Court, while a majority in the Republican-dominated Legislature, didn't have the necessary supermajority in the House.

Last week, the governor's office rejected a request from League of Women Voters release the names of applicants. Brownback's position is in keeping with how Kansas governors have handled potential candidates for their Cabinets or other major appointments.