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A Kansas legislative staffer's copy of a Kansas Supreme Court decision protecting abortion rights sits on a table during a briefing for lawmakers, Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2019, at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kansas. Anti-abortion legislators have launched an effort to amend the state constitution to overturn the decision.(AP Photo/John Hanna)

Anti-abortion group opposes Kansas Supreme Court candidates

TOPEKA, Kan. — Kansas’ most influential anti-abortion group launched an effort Tuesday to block two candidates for a state Supreme Court vacancy even before a state commission selects finalists for Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly, an abortion rights supporter, to consider.

The unusually vocal and public move by Kansans for Life comes as conservatives are trying to overturn a Supreme Court ruling that protects abortion rights and are pushing to require state Senate confirmation of the high court’s justices. Both changes would require a change in the state constitution, and legislators are expected to consider putting the proposals on the ballot next year.

The group announced it is opposing Kansas Court of Appeals Judge Melissa Taylor Standridge and Shawnee County District Judge Evelyn Wilson. It objects to Standridge because she was part of a 2016 appeals court ruling favoring abortion rights and to Wilson because of her husband’s past political contributions to Kelly and other candidates supporting abortion rights.

Standridge and Wilson are among 20 candidates for a Supreme Court vacancy created by the retirement of Justice Lee Johnson last month. A nine-member state nominating commission led by lawyers plans to interview the candidates Thursday and Friday and name three finalists. Kelly’s appointee will then take a seat on the high court, with no review by legislators.

The anti-abortion group called on the nominating commission to reject Standridge and Wilson as finalists. The commission’s interviews are public.

“Both of these applicants are extreme and out of step with Kansas values,” said Kansans for Life lobbyist Jeanne Gawdun. “Their selection by the Nominating Commission would be biased towards extreme abortion causes.”

Standridge declined to comment through an appeals-court spokeswoman. Wilson’s husband, Michael, said she would not comment because she has made a point of avoiding politics since becoming a judge.

“Evelyn doesn’t get involved in politics,” he said. “She and I don’t always agree on politics.”

Standridge has been an appeals court judge since 2008 and Wilson, a trial court judge since 2004. Both were appointed by former Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, another abortion rights supporter. Johnson also was appointed to the Supreme Court by Sebelius, in 2007.

Abortion opponents are mobilizing to change the state constitution because the Supreme Court ruled in April that the constitution’s Bill of Rights grants a fundamental right to “personal autonomy” that includes a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy. Abortion opponents fear that restrictions already in place could be successfully challenged in state courts.

Before the lawsuit raising that question reached the Supreme Court, all 14 judges on the Court of Appeals reviewed it, and the state’s second-highest court split 7-7 over whether the Kansas Constitution protects abortion rights. Standridge joined the judges who concluded it does.

Michael Wilson’s past political contributions include $3,000 to Kelly’s campaign for governor and another $3,000 to Kelly’s state Senate campaigns in 2016 and 2012, online campaign finance records show. But he noted that he’s given to Republicans and was elected as a GOP precinct committee member last year.

Conservatives have long argued that the high court is too liberal and have sought to push it to the right. Kansans for Life was a key part of unsuccessful election campaign efforts in 2014 and 2016 to oust six of the seven justices. Conservatives argue that requiring Senate confirmation of the justices would make the selection process more transparent and accountable to voters.

But Jeffrey Jackson, a Washburn University law professor, said the current process allows groups to weigh in because the names of Supreme Court candidates are public. He said it’s more typical that candidates’ supporters write letters on their behalf but said Kansans for Life’s public opposition is “certainly within the bounds of what we want the system to look like.”

“I’m surprised it hasn’t happened already, more often,” Jackson said. “I think especially in contentious times, you’re going to see this more.”

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