Judge: Kansas Supreme Court justice selection is fine as it is

A federal judge said Tuesday that there's no harm in leaving in place the current selection process for the Kansas Supreme Court.

U.S. District Judge Monti Belot denied a request for a preliminary injunction against a nominating committee charged with selecting finalists for the state's highest court.

Belot's ruling means that Gov. Mark Parkinson, a Democrat, will get to name a replacement for Chief Justice Robert Davis. Parkinson is set to leave office at the end of the year.

The request to halt the current process was spurred by a lawsuit last month from four Kansas voters who said the committee denied them a voice in the selection process.

The nominating committee consists of five attorneys and four residents who don't practice law. They review applications, conduct interviews and nominate three finalists to the governor, who makes the final appointment.

Belot said a preliminary injunction was not in the public interest and would interrupt a process in place for decades.

"Over 50 years ago, Kansas voters approved a constitutional amendment on filling court vacancies that has served the state well," said Kansas Attorney General Steve Six. "I will continue to vigorously defend the constitutionality of judicial selection against politically driven lawsuits."

Belot said a temporary restraining order would prevent a nominating commission from filling the current vacancy.

Lawyers bringing the lawsuit argued their intent was to keep lawyers from dominating the selection process.

"We're just saying that they're not legitimate," said Joe Vanderhust of Indiana, one of the lawyers representing the four Kansas voters. "Because they aren't elected by the voters, they shouldn't wield the power that they do."

In Kansas, Supreme Court Justices are required to be attorneys with 10 years of law experience. Belot ruled that keeping the attorneys from the process would effectively halt the current selection. The nominating committee is expected to send a list of finalists to Parkinson before the end of the month.

Having started the process, "the commission cannot proceed with just the four remaining non-lawyer members," Belot wrote in his ruling.

"Merit selection of the Supreme Court is an important part of our state constitution and Judge Belot's order allows that process to go forward," said Jay Fowler, a Wichita attorney who serves on the selection committee and was named in the lawsuit.

The Kansas merit selection for Supreme Court Justices is the one used by most states, according to the National Center for State Courts.

The lawsuit says the process violates voters' rights under the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution by excluding them from the process.

Proponents argue that voters are given a voice, because their elected governor appoints non-lawyers to the selection committee and makes the final decisions.

Voters also have a voice, supporters say, because they vote whether to retain Supreme Court justices every six years.

Belot did not rule on the merits of the case in Tuesday's ruling.

The state is now expected to file a motion to dismiss.

Belot will then rule on whether the case should continue to trial.

Changing the selection process on the state level would require the passage of a Constitutional amendment.

Kansas voter ratified the current process in 1958.

Sup Ct Nominating_TROOrder