I’ve enjoyed the privilege of writing for The Star for 16 years. That equates to roughly 350 columns. In that time, I’ve declined the temptation to offer my own perspective on whatever hot partisan topic was percolating to the surface.
Today I’m deviating from the narrative just a bit.
You see, in my other life I’m an attorney. From the first time someone posed to me the question “what do you want to be when you grow up” the answer was always the same: a lawyer.
I knew of three attorneys at a young age — my dad, his brother Bob, and Perry Mason. On Saturdays, Mom would give the Keenan boys permission to drop by Keenan & Keenan and watch the wheels of justice turn.
That required an expansive imagination. Every client waiting in the sitting area was implicated in some murder mystery. We just hadn’t read about it yet. They also had a large iron steel safe in the storage, which unquestionably contained a gun, a knife and a confession.
After I graduated from KU’s law school in 1984, I settled in Kansas City and started work with an area law firm.
So if right now you were expecting a column about baby birds, Bernie, my AWOL boys, the 2-pound Verizon bill which just hit the mailbox, a fleet of cars clogging up our driveway, low T, Axe Body Spray, issues with helicopter moms, overdraft charges, planes trains and automobiles, KU football, or countless other topics that Pulitzer Prize committee overlooked, I have breaking news.
This column is serious.
If you are still reading, allow me to continue a tad deeper in intellectual foray by becoming Captain Obvious.
Lately it seems everyone is attacking the third branch of government — the judges. Here in Kansas our own Supreme Court is on the receiving end of criticism by various politicos and in some cases opinion piece writers. From time to time the vitriol has extended to how our state selects judges. And that is what prompted this column.
Kansas has something called a Supreme Court Nominating Commission. In creating this commission, Kansas joined about two-thirds of states with similar protocols.
The commission’s work is familiar to anyone who has made an important hiring decision. It seeks applicants who must complete an extensive application. The applicants are identified publicly, the interviews are open to the public and only the deliberations are confidential. After the applicants have been thoroughly vetted, the commission submits the names of the three who are deemed best qualified to the governor, who must select an applicant from the list.
Kansas adopted this commission concept following an historical event now known as the “triple play,” which has nothing to do with the Royals. Historians tell us that in 1957, Gov. Fred Hall — a Republican who had just lost his re-election — resigned to permit the lieutenant governor to become governor, who then appointed Hall to the Supreme Court for life.
The commission was created to insulate the state’s highest court from politics.
This was a constitutional amendment, which cannot be changed by the Legislature without a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate. Later, the Legislature adopted the same framework for Court of Appeals judges, though this was only by statute, requiring only a majority vote to be repealed. And three years ago, the Legislature did just that, empowering the governor to make Court of Appeals appointments, with the State Senate’s approval.
I’ve had the privilege of serving on the commission, having been elected by the other Kansas attorneys in Johnson, Wyandotte and Miami counties in 2008, and then re-elected in 2012. I am one of five attorneys who serve with four lay appointments from the governor’s office. Members may not hold any other public office while serving on the commission, nor may they hold positions of responsibility within a political party.
This commission format has been embraced as one in which the best candidates can be encouraged to apply and need not have political connections, deep pockets, or the support of special interests.
In a report by the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System by the University of Denver, “the process can create an environment in which the selection decision focuses on candidates’ experience, character, and qualifications — not their political penchants — and qualified candidates may be more motivated to throw their hat in the ring.”
My eight years of service have allowed me to see the commission function through three different governors. I’ve seen an incredible array of candidates apply — some dripping in partisan stripes, others with none. But the process has encouraged highly qualified, smart, industrious members of the bar to apply for these vacancies. And, I believe, the commission has separated the partisan applicants from the qualified ones, and then provided the governor the three best candidates.
My term has allowed me to screen seven positions for the Court of Appeals, and three vacancies for the Supreme Court.
Consider, for instance the three names we sent to the governor in 2014, the last time there was a Kansas Supreme Court vacancy.
The first name was Appeals Court Judge Karen Arnold-Burger. Judge Arnold-Burger is known to many in this county. She was the municipal judge for Overland Park for 20 years, and was appointed by the governor in 2011 to the Court of Appeals following the commission’s screening process.
The second attorney the commission recommended was District Court Judge Merlin Wheeler. You probably have never heard of him, which is sort of like complimenting the anonymity of a Major League Baseball umpire.
Judge Wheeler is an iconic leader in Emporia and the Chief Judge for the Fifth Judicial District, which includes Lyon and Chase counties. His law career spans more than 40 years. He made the short list of candidates two years earlier when there was another vacancy in the Supreme Court, so he was selected by the commission twice.
The third name the commission sent to the governor was Caleb Stegall. Stegall graduated at the top of his KU law school class and demonstrated a broad range of legal experiences including serving as county attorney for Jefferson County.
In the practice he dedicated considerable time to charitable legal causes, and the Kansas Bar Association recognized his efforts with a pro bono distinction in 2010. Later, he served as chief counsel to the Brownback administration, and the governor appointed him to fill a vacancy on the Court of Appeals in 2013.
Of the three names sent to the governor by the Commission, Justice Stegall was ultimately selected to fill the court’s vacancy.
Our system of screening applicants for the Supreme Court is a good one. Our court is a good court. And the justices who sit on it are smart, hard-working, fair and impartial.
Matthew Keenan writes the first and third Wednesday of the month. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.