Opinion Columns & Blogs

February 24, 2011

Don't politicize judicial appointment system

Our state's long-standing merit selection process to appoint judges to the Kansas Court of Appeals is under attack.

Our state's long-standing merit selection process to appoint judges to the Kansas Court of Appeals is under attack.

Kansans need to know that the Legislature is now considering House Bill 2101, a bill to replace the merit system for appointment of judges to our state Court of Appeals with a purely political selection process. Under this bill, a governor may appoint whomever he or she wants as a judge, with confirmation by the Kansas Senate.

Citizens of the Sunflower State who have historically enjoyed a highly qualified, fair and impartial judiciary have reason to be concerned.

The current merit system for appellate judicial selection has served our state extremely well since the 1970s. To ensure that only the best and brightest were selected to the Court of Appeals, the Legislature established a nominating commission composed of lawyers and laypeople from each of our congressional districts.

Every registered lawyer in our state is notified of every court vacancy and invited to apply. Commission members review these applications, investigate the applicants' credentials, conduct public personal interviews of the applicants, verify their qualifications and then competitively vet the applicants. The result is that the three best and brightest individuals are referred to the governor, who appoints one of them to the Court of Appeals.

Today, as a result of this merit selection process, Kansas enjoys one of the best intermediate appellate courts in the nation, as confirmed by extensive surveys conducted by the Kansas Commission on Judicial Performance and by national rating agencies. In the past few years, more than 92 percent of Kansans surveyed by the Commission on Judicial Performance recommended retention of the 13 judges serving on the Court of Appeals. For the past eight years, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce ranked Kansas on average as 12th among 50 states for having the best legal climate. Our Court of Appeals has played a key role in that rating.

We don't need politicians as judges. We need our best and brightest to be judges who will fairly and impartially interpret and apply Kansas law without regard to political ideology, political agenda, political party or political contributors.

When litigants appear before our appellate courts, they expect the dispute to be decided by judges whose sole allegiance is to the applicable law of our state, as well as our state and federal constitutions.

There is much at stake here, not only for our judiciary but for our system of democratic government. The high quality of our appellate court will stay that way only if we continue to seek the best and brightest for our judges — not politicians selected for their political viewpoint or agenda.

Abolishing the nominating commission in favor of a purely political choice is a big mistake.

Etched in marble above the doors to the Sedgwick County Courthouse is the judicial ideal: "Free and independent courts for a free and independent people." For 34 years, the current merit selection process has provided all Kansans with a fair and impartial Court of Appeals. For the good of our state, let's keep it that way.

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