KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Four former Kansas governors launched a bipartisan push this week to retain Kansas Supreme Court justices in November’s election, warning that ousting the jurists targeted by conservatives could politicize the state’s top court and undercut its impartiality.
The campaign by former Republican Govs. Mike Hayden and Bill Graves and former Democratic Govs. John Carlin and Kathleen Sebelius aims to blunt Republican complaints over the court’s rulings on public school funding and reversing death sentences in capital murder cases.
Voters will decide Nov. 8 whether to retain five of the seven justices — Chief Justice Lawton Nuss and Justices Carol Beier, Dan Biles, Marla Luckert and Caleb Stegall — for another six years. Conservatives are targeting all of them except Stegall, Republican Gov. Sam Brownback’s only appointee. In May, the Kansas Republican Party endorsed the ouster of Nuss, Beier, Biles and Luckert.
Previous elections haven’t been a threat to justices’ careers: Since the state stopped electing them to the bench in 1960, voters haven’t ejected one.
The former governors insisted that letting four justices go in November ultimately will leave Brownback to fill each vacancy from finalists recommended to him by a nine-member, nonpartisan commission. Brownback has talked of changing the process, but doing so requires amending the Kansas Constitution — a proposal that must be adopted by two-thirds majorities in both chambers and approved by a simple majority of voters in a statewide election.
“The system has worked. It’s just tragic there are those who want to destroy that system,” Carlin said during Tuesday’s Union Station roundtable sponsored by Kansans for Fair Courts, a group that says it wants to keep the state’s courts independent.
Sebelius — married to a federal magistrate judge — added: “We’ve seen an unprecedented assault on the judiciary for the past number of years,” and replacing a majority of the court “would seriously undermine the tenet of Kansas government — a fair and independent judiciary.”
The court’s handling of death sentences has drawn frequent ire. Before upholding a death sentence in July in connection with a 2005 shooting that killed a sheriff, the court had only once let stand such a punishment under the state’s 1994 capital punishment law. Kansas hasn’t executed anyone in more than 50 years, and there are 10 men on the state’s death row.
In 2014, voters decided Justices Lee Johnson and Eric Rosen should remain on the high court despite an effort to vote them off in response to the court’s tossing out of death sentences for brothers Jonathan and Reginald Carr in connection with four Wichita shooting deaths in 2000.
That ruling generated widespread blowback, including from Brownback and GOP lawmakers. In January, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the Kansas court’s decision.
The case helped propel the anti-retention group Kansans for Justice, which is now pushing for four of justices, Stegall excluded, to be removed.
“I do think they’re pushing an agenda, and I think they’re being activists from the seat,” said Amy James, a Kansans for Justice spokeswoman and former girlfriend of one of the people killed by the Carrs. “They’re not following Kansas law, and if someone’s not doing their job they should be up for being reviewed. If Kansans want to make a change, they can do so.”
During another pro-retention stop in Topeka later Tuesday, Carlin said “this is not a debate between us and the families impacted” by killings, including those by the Carrs.
“We’re just trying to make a case, based on our experience with the system and looking at the future in terms of protecting that system on balance,” he said.
Graves credited the court with “some fine work on school finance.”
“I’m pretty darn proud of the court for the way they’ve held firm on working to ensure we have great education for our kids,” he said.