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Michael A. Smith: Special session will test leadership

  • Published Wednesday, August 14, 2013, at 12 a.m.

Gov. Sam Brownback has called for a special session of the Legislature starting Sept. 3. It will be the first since 2005. At issue is the so-called Hard 50 law allowing judges to impose a 50-year prison sentence without parole or probation to those convicted of crimes deemed particularly heinous. Ruling on a similar Virginia law, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that juries, not judges, should decide the sentences.

Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt is concerned that this ruling may affect more than two dozen cases pending in Kansas. A special joint legislative committee has been formed, headed by Rep. Lance Kinzer, R-Olathe, to draft legislation fixing the law and have it ready to move quickly. However, House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, and Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, may have their hands full keeping a lid on restive colleagues’ desires to raise other issues during the special session.

The most pertinent “me, too” concern probably will be dismissed quickly, because it is being raised by the badly outnumbered Democratic minority. Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, and Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, D-Wichita, want the Legislature to respond to another recent Supreme Court ruling. In Arizona v. Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, the court struck down a state law requiring that a birth certificate be shown when registering to vote. Plaintiffs challenged the law and won on behalf of voters who had tried to register using a federal form created by the 1993 “motor voter” law, which requires no birth certificate.

Ward and Faust-Goudeau contend that given this ruling, the special session would be a great time to scrap a similar Kansas law championed by Secretary of State Kris Kobach. However, Kobach counters that the Kansas law was written with this in mind. He also is considering a system in which those who register using the federal form and no birth certificate can vote in federal elections (for president and Congress) but not state ones, creating a loophole that may save the Kansas law from unconstitutionality.

Others have their own agendas for the special session. Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, expressed concern that the session will allow Brownback to quickly nominate a judge for the Kansas Court of Appeals and speed approval through the Senate in a few days, with little scrutiny. However, Hensley’s concern probably will be dismissed with little fanfare.

By far the biggest headache for leadership would be if lawmakers try to revisit the “fetal heartbeat” bill, which would prohibit abortion once a fetal heartbeat has been detected. Brownback, Merrick and Wagle are all anti-abortion. Yet as leaders, their job is to keep the Legislature on task.

Can they do this effectively without losing their anti-abortion credibility? The special session will put their skills to the test.

Michael A. Smith is a political science professor at Emporia State University.

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