Reject ugly political attacks in Kansas and retain Supreme Court justices

Kansas voters have good reasons to retain Kansas Supreme Court justices on Nov. 8.
Kansas voters have good reasons to retain Kansas Supreme Court justices on Nov. 8. The Associated Press

A few days ago Kansas House Republicans called on voters to oust four of the five state Supreme Court justices standing for retention later this year. The GOP group said they were part of “an activist and political judiciary.”

Voters should soundly reject this blatant attempt to politicize the court and weaken the judiciary’s role in the state’s three-branch form of government.

Alarmed local business leaders issued their own support for the justices last Wednesday. Joe Reardon, president and CEO of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, said the effort to unseat them “is unprecedented and worrisome,” adding that his organization “believes politics has no place in the selection and retention of members of the Kansas judiciary.”

That’s an excellent point to keep in mind as conservative Republican members of the Legislature, Secretary of State Kris Kobach and special interest groups such as Kansans for Life lash out against the four justices.

They are Lawton Nuss, Carol Beier, Dan Biles and Marla Luckert. (Notably, the only justice up for retention not mentioned by Kansas House Republicans or other critics is Caleb Stegall, who was appointed to the court by Gov. Sam Brownback.)

Take a step back and contrast the drumbeat of negativity from opponents with a few key facts:

▪ The people who know the justices best — attorneys and other judges — gave extremely high marks in the comprehensive and anonymous 2016 Judicial Review Survey to the four justices targeted for defeat this November.

Overall, the survey found that the four justices in question most often “render decisions without regard to possible public criticism” and “make reasoned decisions based on the law and facts.” Those are exactly the kinds of justices Kansans should keep on the seven-member court.

The lowest-rated justice, by far, was Stegall, though he still received a majority of support for being retained in office.

▪ Kansans in a few opinion polls this year have said they are far more “satisfied” with the performance of the Supreme Court than they are with the actions of Brownback and the Legislature.

But make no mistake: Many more ugly attacks are ahead for the four justices.

They have been and will be accused of being “liberals,” wanting to burden Kansans with new spending for K-12 schools, having their opinion constantly overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court and — especially — being soft on violent crime.

Given the hundreds of cases handled by the court in recent years, no clear patterns exist to prove any of these allegations.

Instead, as supporters note, the justices are in political trouble partly because they have raised the ire of opponents by not kowtowing to the Legislature and the governor. The politicians have pressured the court, without success, to back away from making critical decision on school funding cases in the last few years.

Chief Justice Nuss and Beier told The Star last week that they have done their best to rule on the law without involving politics. One of Nuss’ business cards features a photo of the justices and this notation: “Fair and impartial courts for all Kansans.” The back of the card includes the short oath the justices take to “support ... the Constitution of the state of Kansas.”

The justices can’t directly raise money for any campaign to be retained. Instead, advocacy groups will take on that role, trying to counter the politicized views of opponents.

The “Friends of Chief Justice Lawton Nuss Inc.” is one organization gathering money now. The best-known one is Kansans for Fair Courts, which says on its website, “Many things in Kansas are broken right now, but our court system isn’t one of them.”

That brings us to a dismaying part of this venture. Most contributions to retain or oust the justices will be shrouded from public scrutiny. Groups lobbying on both sides of this question legally don’t have to reveal their donations.

No one will know whether the Koch brothers’ interests will give funds to try to get rid of the justices. Or, on the flip side, if big donors will rush to help out Nuss and Co.

That lack of transparency isn’t in the public’s interest.

The overriding goal in the next two-plus months for Kansans is to resist the political witch-hunt against the four Supreme Court justices. They deserve to be retained.