The governor would have the power to pick judges for one of the state's most powerful courts, subject to Senate confirmation, under a bill the House tentatively approved Thursday.
The 68-54 vote to change judicial selection for the court of appeals wouldn’t affect appointment of Supreme Court judges, as a constitutional amendment approved by the Senate weeks ago would do.
But it would eliminate the current appeals court process where a nominating commission gives a list of qualified candidates to the Governor, who then selects a judge to fill a vacancy. That commission is comprised of five attorneys selected by other attorneys and four non-attorneys picked by the governor.
Conservative Republicans have criticized the selection process for appeals and supreme court judges, saying it’s undemocratic because it gives judicial selection powers to unelected Kansans.
Rep. Lance Kinzer, R-Olathe, called the current commission “an elite insular group.”
Kinzer said the changes proposed in House Bill 2019 would make the system more democratic and accountable, and he noted that judges will still face retention elections.
“In terms of any concern about judges looking over their shoulders when they’re making rulings or not being able to make tough calls, this bill doesn’t change the rules of the game in any respect,” he said.
But some Republicans and Democrats say it appears to be tied to the conservative takeover of state government.
Rep. Steven Becker, R-Buhler, a retired district court judge, said the state’s top courts should be the bedrock that doesn’t change with political leanings.
“We cannot have the law change with the political wind,” he said. “Instead, we need to insulate and protect the court and the judiciary from the winds of change.”
Rep. Jan Pauls, D-Hutchinson, said that the proposed change would make judicial selection less transparent.
“The public will have no idea what people are being considered for an appointment before their name is issued by the governor,” she said.
The Senate weeks ago approved a constitutional amendment that would give the governor power to appoint supreme court and appeals court judges. If that's approved by a two-thirds vote of the House, where some lawmakers say it may not have enough support, Kansas voters would decide during the 2014 primary election whether to change the process.