Kansas’ three branches of government are meant to be equal, and therefore positioned to check and balance one another. It’s unnecessary and offensive for two branches to be trying to make it easier to oust those who serve in the third.
Yet that’s the whole point of Senate Bill 439, which would expand the legal grounds for impeaching Kansas Supreme Court justices and certain district court judges. With its passage, the acts that could lead to their impeachment would include not only the expected and appropriate ones such as treason and bribery but also the subjective-sounding “attempting to usurp the power of the legislative or executive branch of government” and “exhibiting wanton or reckless judicial conduct.”
The Senate Judiciary Committee anticipates a Thursday debate on the bill, which is the latest act of aggression by the state’s conservative legislative leaders and governor against the independent, impartial judiciary.
Angry over losing in court on school funding and abortion and impatient to see the death penalty carried out, some lawmakers and Gov. Sam Brownback view the judiciary and especially the state Supreme Court as “activist,” “liberal” and out of control.
But the House lacks the votes to advance a constitutional amendment to give Brownback more power to pick Supreme Court justices. Plus, a law weakening the high court’s authority and threatening to end all judicial funding was thrown out as unconstitutional – nullifying a legislative and executive move that arguably had attempted to usurp the power of the judicial branch of government.
Enter the latest bill, which seems designed as much to intimidate jurists as to lead to their impeachment and replacement. Its co-sponsors include south-central Kansas Republican Sens. Les Donovan, Michael O’Donnell, Steve Abrams, Ty Masterson, Mike Petersen and Forrest Knox.
As he promoted the bill in a hearing last week, Sen. Mitch Holmes, R-St. John, argued: “Courts have the ability to harm society with their decisions.”
But so do legislators and chief executives, including by passing and signing laws that trample on separation of powers.
The bill and the faulty reasoning behind it have many people outside of Kansas watching to see whether our state will defend itself against what is a partisan assault on the justice system. Setting the measure aside would signal that the legislative branch properly respects both its role and the judiciary’s.
Besides, the Legislature has enough urgent business of its own to get to this session, starting with an unbalanced state budget.