Government & Politics

Kansas Senate panel votes to expand grounds for impeachment

Some conservative Kansas lawmakers say clearly defining the grounds for impeachment is needed to rein in wayward Supreme Court justices.
Some conservative Kansas lawmakers say clearly defining the grounds for impeachment is needed to rein in wayward Supreme Court justices. The Associated Press

A Senate committee advanced a bill Thursday that would expand the reasons for impeaching Kansas Supreme Court justices, including “attempting to usurp the power” of the Legislature or executive branch.

In an amendment to the original bill, the committee included a similar list of impeachable offenses for the governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state and attorney general.

A long-running clash between the GOP-led Legislature and the Kansas judiciary has intensified, most recently over a school financing decision that will require a multimillion-dollar remedy. Some conservative lawmakers say clearly defining the grounds for impeachment is needed to rein in wayward justices.

But Sen. Greg Smith, an Overland Park Republican and member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Thursday it was wrong to say the purpose of the bill was “to go after judges.” The bill was not a response to court decisions but instead an effort to define “high crimes and misdemeanors” in the state constitution, he said.

The language on impeachment in the constitution is fairly general, allowing impeachment proceedings against justices and the four top executive branch officers for treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors.

The bill defines high crimes and misdemeanors for justices as including “attempting to usurp the power of the legislative or executive branch of government, “failure to perform adequately the duties of office, “attempting to subvert fundamental laws and introduce arbitrary power” and “exhibiting discourteous conduct toward litigants, jurors, witnesses, lawyers or others with whom the justice deals in an official capacity.”

The committee voted 7-4 to recommend passage of the bill in the Senate.

Senate Vice President Jeff King, an Independence Republican and committee chairman, voted against the proposal, saying it could open the door to impeachment proceedings against justices making decisions in good faith.

“Has the Supreme Court issued opinions I disagree with? Absolutely,” said King, noting that Kansas has retention elections for justices.

“I don’t want impeachment proceedings to even be hinted at as based on a decision a justice makes in their official capacity,” he said

Sen. Forrest Knox, an Altoona Republican, supported the bill, saying that defining high crimes and misdemeanors is simply part of the checks and balances necessary in a system with three branches of government.

“That’s the way it’s designed,” Knox said. “Supreme Court justices have become kings, where there is no check.”

In opposing the bill, Sen. David Haley, a Kansas City, Kan., Democrat, said lawmakers should respect the independence of each branch of government.

“We should not be doing this,” Haley said.

School finance rulings are often cited by lawmakers as evidence the court is wresting the power of appropriations from the Legislature.

A recent state Supreme Court decision, citing the Legislature’s constitutional duty to properly finance public schools, has demanded that lawmakers fix a school funding formula by June 30 or risk the shutdown of public schools for the 2016-2017 school year.

The remedy is expected to cost millions, and a second multimillion-dollar ruling could come later this year.

Gov. Sam Brownback led a conservative Republican takeover of the Legislature several years ago, but he has appointed only one of the seven Supreme Court justices. The others were appointed by Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat, and Bill Graves, a moderate Republican.

Justices, appeals court judges and certain district judges don’t compete against other candidates for office but stand for yes-or-no retention elections every six years. If they receive a majority of yes votes, they stay in office another term. No justice has ever been voted out.

Edward M. Eveld: 816-234-4442, @EEveld