The inability to control the selection of state Supreme Court justices has long frustrated Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback and his allies.
Thanks to a legislative vote Wednesday that frustration appears destined to last for at least one more year, which is good news for Kansas.
In a preliminary vote, a majority of the House approved putting the governor in charge of selecting justices to the state’s highest court. But because such a move would unravel a provision in the Kansas Constitution, supporters needed approval from two-thirds of House members to place a constitutional amendment on the statewide ballot.
The vote fell 15 members short. That’s a big gap for House leaders to make up before a final vote today.
A process in place since the 1950s designates a nominating commission to screen applicants to fill judicial vacancies. The commission sends a panel of three finalists to the governor, who makes the final selection.
The governor gets to fill four of the nine seats on the commission. The Kansas legal bar votes to select the other five. Critics of that entirely reasonable process would prefer that the governor select justices directly, subject to approval by the state Senate.
A change like that, though, would decimate one of the few checks and balances in Kansas government. We have seen the Legislature and governor work in lockstep to pass laws that arguably defy U.S. Constitutional precedents. Kansas needs an independent judiciary, not one beholden to the executive.
Independent judges have been a problem for Brownback and other conservatives, especially when they have struck down laws on school financing and abortion.
Recently opponents have found another reason to try to undermine the state Supreme Court. Its controversial 2014 ruling that overturned death sentences for Reginald and Jonathan Carr, brothers who brutally murdered five people in Wichita in 2000, recently was criticized and set aside by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Kansas justices had overturned the death sentences on procedural grounds, although the two men remained in prison. Brownback’s re-election campaign shamefully used the issue in 2014, contending that the governor’s Democratic opponent would select liberal judges who would be soft on crime.
In advance of this week’s House vote, GOP leaders invited state Attorney General Derek Schmidt to meet with members of the Republican caucus and brief them on recent legal developments, including the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the Carr case. The meeting was timed to influence the vote on judicial selection.
Schmidt has until now refused to politicize his office. It’s disturbing that he consented to the House leaders’ maneuver.
GOP House members received communications from groups such as Kansans for Life and Americans for Prosperity-Kansas, forcefully urging them to vote for the judicial selection change.
Members who refused may hear about it when they campaign for re-election later this year. But their principled stand makes Kansas a better state. They should stand their ground when it comes time to vote again on Thursday.