With important elections coming up Nov. 4, it’s open season on judges in Kansas and Missouri.
Poisonous attempts to use courts as political fodder make it imperative to understand their role. A judge’s job is not to please wealthy donors or a governor. It is to hear cases impartially and interpret the law wisely and fairly. Judges should be evaluated on the entirety of their work and not on one or even a handful of polarizing decisions.
Voters will have a chance to do that in little more than a week, despite some baseless attempts to influence their judgment.
▪ Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback is falsely tying his opponent, Democrat Paul Davis, to a state Supreme Court decision overturning the death sentences of Jonathan and Reginald Carr, brothers who murdered five persons during a crime spree in Wichita 14 years ago.
Brownback’s desperate and flawed logic: Davis would appoint the same kind of “liberal” judges who reversed the death sentences. His disgraceful attempt to politicize an appalling tragedy has been correctly criticized by the prosecutor who handled the case and by families of the victims.
Against this backdrop, Kansas residents will vote “yes” or “no” on whether to retain Supreme Court Justices Eric S. Rosen and Lee Johnson, who joined with the majority opinion to set aside the death sentences and also reverse some of the convictions in the case. The court said the trial judge erred by not granting the two defendants separate trials in the penalty phase, to determine death or life in prison. Justices also faulted the trial judge for some of his instructions to jurors.
Rosen and Johnson face opposition from family and friends of the victims of the crime spree. Their anger is understandable. Though both Carr men will remain in prison on capital convictions, the Supreme Court decision raises the possibility that relatives and surviving victims may have to relive the nightmare in court.
But the right to a fair trial is a bedrock U.S. principle, regardless of how awful the crimes or unsympathetic the defendants.
Johnson and Rosen received high scores from the Kansas Judicial Evaluation Committee, a group of practicing lawyers, academics, court professionals and citizens. They deserve a YES vote to continue in their jobs.
The evaluation committee also gave acceptable to high marks to the eight Kansas appeals judges who are up for retention. The Star recommends voting YES on Tom Malone, Stephen D. Hill, Patrick D. McAnany, Kim R. Schroeder, Henry W. Green Jr., Anthony J. Powell, Michael B. Buser and Melissa Taylor Standridge.
▪ Johnson County voters will also decide on the retentions of 11 judges and one magistrate.
Included on the ballot will be Kevin P. Moriarty, the judge who briefly this month allowed marriage licenses to be issued to same-sex couples. On Friday, a resident of Louisburg, Brian Baumgardner, announced he was initiating a drive to have Moriarty removed because of the marriage issue.
But that would deprive Johnson Countians of an experienced and capable judge. Plenty of legal experts believe Moriarty properly decided that officials cannot continue to deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples in the wake of federal court decisions that have ruled otherwise.
The Star recommends voting YES to retain Moriarty, as well as judges Keven M.P. O’Grady, Erica Kay Schoenig, David W. Hauber, Christina Dunn Gyllenborg, Kathleen L. Sloan, Paul C. Gurney, Michael P. Joyce, Neil B. Foth, Thomas Kelly Ryan and Timothy P. McCarthy. Magistrate Daniel W. Vokins also deserves to be retained.
▪ Voters in Missouri also will see judicial retention questions for statewide judges on their ballots. Judges are also up for retention in Jackson, Clay and Platte counties.
That’s a plus for this region. The three counties, along with St. Louis, St. Louis County and Greene County, where Springfield is located, all use a nonpartisan selection system to seat judges, who then periodically stand for retention.
Smaller rural counties in Missouri opt to elect judges on party platforms, which is currently a problem in Cole County, home to the Missouri Capitol.
A Washington D.C.-based group has dumped $200,000 into a formerly low-key race pitting Democratic incumbent Pat Joyce against Republican Brian Stumpe. The Republican State Leadership Committee, a group funded by corporations and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, clearly wants to purchase influence on a court that routinely handles cases involving state laws and ballot issues. That’s bad for democracy.
Fortunately, under a process created by the Missouri Supreme Court and funded by the Missouri Bar, evaluation committees consisting of lawyers and non-lawyers rate all judges who are standing for retention under the nonpartisan selection system. Those recommendations are available to voters at yourmissourijudges.org/evaluations.
The statewide judges up for retention have all received adequate to high marks from persons familiar with their work and have earned YES votes. They are Missouri Supreme Court Judges Laura Denvir Stith and Paul Campbell Wilson and Western District Court of Appeals Judges Lisa White Hardwick and Anthony Rex Gabbert.
In Jackson County, voters should say YES to retain Kenneth R. Garrett III, Patrick W. Campbell, John M. Torrence, Robert M. Schieber, Kevin Duane Harrell, Richard T. Standridge, Gregory Burnett Gillis, Twila Kay Rigby, Mary Frances Weir and Jeffrey L. Bushur.
In Clay County, Judges David P. Chamberlain and Karen Lee Krauser, are recommended for retention, as is James W. VanAmburg in Platte County.