Republican lawmakers in Kansas, weary of conflicts with a judiciary that has been pushing for more school spending, are beginning to act on a measure to expand the legal grounds for impeaching judges.
The move is part of an intensified effort in red states to reshape courts still dominated by moderate judges from earlier administrations.
A committee in the GOP-controlled Senate plans to vote Tuesday on a bill that would make “attempting to usurp the power” of the Legislature or the executive branch grounds for impeachment.
Impeachment has “been a little-used tool” to challenge judges who strike down new legislation, said Republican Sen. Dennis Pyle, a sponsor of the measure. “Maybe it needs to be oiled up a little bit or sharpened a little bit.”
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The proposal has considerable support in a Legislature in which Republicans outnumber Democrats more than 3 to 1. Nearly half the Senate’s members have signed on as sponsors. It’s unclear whether its novelty could complicate passage.
The serious consideration of the measure, though, signals the exceedingly bitter political climate in the state.
Since Gov. Sam Brownback and GOP supermajorities won control of the statehouse in 2010, conservatives have passed a steady stream of bills cutting income taxes and spending, expanding gun rights and restricting abortion.
The state Supreme Court has issued rulings to force increased spending on public schools, citing a constitutional requirement that schools be adequately funded, and threatened last month to shut the schools this fall if lawmakers don’t comply. The court also has overturned death sentences in capital murder cases and is reviewing a case that could toss out abortion restrictions.
“I believe the court has a tremendous problem with overreach,” said Republican Sen. Mitch Holmes, one of the impeachment bill’s sponsors.
Callie Denton, executive director of the state trial lawyers’ association, said Kansas is “really ground zero” for conservative antagonism for toward the courts. Legal groups like hers fear Republicans will be motivated to initiate impeachment proceedings if the bill passes.
“We’re taking it very seriously,” Denton said.
Four of the Kansas’ seven Supreme Court justices were appointed by Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, who served from 2003 to 2009, and two by her predecessor, Bill Graves, a moderate Republican. Only one was appointed Brownback.
Replacing the justices through elections is difficult in Kansas because they don’t run in contested races. Instead, they face a “retention election” every six years, remaining in office unless more than 50 percent of voters vote against them. No justice has ever been voted out.
Conservative groups are expected to mount a major effort to vote out four of the Supreme Court justices on the ballot this fall. But critical lawmakers also hope to make impeachment a tool.
Currently, the state constitution allows impeachment only for treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors. No public official has been impeached since 1934.
In other states, conservative groups are spending heavily in contested judicial elections. Two Arkansas Supreme Court candidates were defeated last week after two groups spent more than $850,000 on broadcast ads targeting them; one was a sitting justice seeking to become the chief justice.
Brownback and GOP lawmakers already have tried unsuccessfully to change how the justices are selected and to cut the judiciary’s budget.
“The attacks on the courts in Kansas have definitely been coming faster and more furious than in other states,” said Debra Erenberg, spokesman for Justice at Stake, a Washington-based group promoting judicial independence.
“It just seems like the Legislature has been throwing everything it can think of at the courts.”