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Group asks judge to dismiss suit over Supreme Court nominations

WICHITA — A group of lawyers who screen potential justices for the Kansas Supreme Court asked a federal judge today to leave the long-standing process intact.

The motion filed this afternoon asks U.S. District Judge Monti Belot to dismiss a suit by four voters who claim their right to vote is being violated.

Belot ruled earlier this week that he would not issue a temporary restraining order, which would have effectively blocked the filling of the next vacancy by Gov. Mark Parkinson.

Today's motion said that Kansas voters overwhelmingly approved the appointment process in 1958 after perceived abuses of power by a Republican governor.

A maneuver by Gov. Fred Hall to gain a seat on the state's highest court outraged voters and resulted in a change to the state constitution that followed a procedure adopted in Missouri 10 years earlier, the motion said.

According to the motion:

After losing the Republican primary in 1956, Hall resigned as governor. Then Chief Justice William Smith, a Hall friend and political ally, resigned his seat on the court. Lt. Gov. John McCuish took over the state's executive office and appointed Hall to the court.

There was strong, negative public reaction to this political maneuvering, the motion read.

The resulting constitutional amendment developed the nominating committee, which is now the target of the lawsuit.

It claims that because five of the nine nominating committee members are lawyers, it excludes voters from the process. The commission reviews judicial nominees — who must be lawyers — interviews and screens candidates. It then recommends three names to the governor, who makes the final decision.

Attorneys have expert knowledge and qualifications to be a major part of the nominations, the lawyers argue.

"Kansas lawyers also have a beneficial perspective to offer the Commission and the state in terms of evaluating potential supreme court nominees — a perspective based on their experience practicing law in Kansas and their personal knowledge of the credentials, experience, integrity, and character of the candidates," the motion says.

Lawyers on the nominating committee are selected by their colleagues from each of the state's congressional districts. Four non-attorney members are appointed by the governor.

Assistant Attorney General Patrick Hurley and Lawrence attorney Steve McAllister argued that having lawyers lead the nominations helps keep politics out of the judiciary.

"It is precisely that expertise that the people of Kansas sought to harness when they overwhelmingly passed the constitutional amendment in 1958 that created the current merit-based selection process," they said.

Belot will await a response from the legal team that filed the suit, led by Indiana lawyer James Bopp Jr., before ruling whether the case should proceed to trial.

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