Proposals to do away with the state’s current process for selecting Supreme Court justices and to create a new court of criminal appeals were introduced Wednesday in a hastily called session of a House committee.
The proposals, by Rep. Lance Kinzer, R-Olathe, would bring to Kansas the federal model for judicial selection by allowing the governor to make lifetime appointments to the state Supreme Court. The appointments would be subject to the approval of the state Senate. That measure would require a constitutional amendment.
Kinzer also introduced two regular bills. One would cap the retirement age for judges at 65 instead of the current 75. The other would split the Court of Appeals into criminal and civil divisions, with the criminal division having final say on all criminal cases.
The Supreme Court would retain its authority to rule on the constitutionality of legislative acts and continue to be the court of last resort in civil cases.
Kinzer said he doesn’t expect the selection amendment or the bill to divide the courts to get a vote in the waning days of this legislative session.
He said he’s hoping that those will be discussed during the summer and be ready to go when the Legislature returns next January.
He said he might be able to get the retirement age, the simplest of the three bills, passed in the few remaining days of this session.
Kinzer, an attorney and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, has long been a critic of the state’s current “merit-based” appointment system, where a committee of five lawyers elected by the state bar and four non-lawyers appointed by the governor select three nominees for Supreme Court openings. The governor then selects from those three.
Kinzer said putting the selection process in the hands of the elected governor and Senate would be more democratic, and lifelong appointments would insulate the judges from political pressure.
The proposals were immediately denounced by the House’s top Democrat, Minority Leader Paul Davis of Lawrence, who characterized them as a power grab by Gov. Sam Brownback and the conservative majority of the Legislature.
“Gov. Brownback and the Republican leadership seem to be infatuated with trying to control the court system,” Davis said. “They are continually trying to bully the Supreme Court to try to get what they want, and I don’t understand why it is they are so convinced that they have to have control over all three branches of government.”
Davis said it would be practically impossible to pass the proposed bills this session, but they’re being introduced now in a political gambit to pressure Supreme Court justices to give ground on their opposition to changing the selection process.
“Trying to mess with their retirement age and creating new courts are just simply an effort to try to bully the Supreme Court,” he said. “But there’s just no place for that.”
The proposals come amid an ongoing battle between the Legislature and the courts over school funding and immediately following a Bar Association board vote opposing changes in judicial selection.
The Legislature has already replaced merit selection with governor appointment and Senate confirmation for judges on the Kansas Court of Appeals.
Changing the way the Supreme Court justices are chosen would require a vote of the public because that process is defined in the state constitution.
Although Kinzer heads the Judiciary Committee where the proposals would usually be heard, he introduced them into the Federal and State Affairs Committee, which is one of only a handful of legislative committees that can still accept new bills during the remainder of the current session.
Rep. Steve Brunk, R-Wichita and a member of the Federal and State Affairs Committee, said he thinks the idea of a separate court for criminal appeals has some appeal.
“I think looking at a division of responsibilities based on what the constitution offers, giving us a new criminal court, is a very interesting idea,” he said.