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Supreme Court justices talk to Wichitans about their jobs, challenges

Kansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Lawton R. Nuss, center, and Justice Carol A. Beier, right, receive sunflowers from Women for Kansas co-chair Martha Pint in appreciation for their discussion on the state of Kansas courts Saturday at the SEIU Hall.
Kansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Lawton R. Nuss, center, and Justice Carol A. Beier, right, receive sunflowers from Women for Kansas co-chair Martha Pint in appreciation for their discussion on the state of Kansas courts Saturday at the SEIU Hall. The Wichita Eagle

The chief justice of the Kansas Supreme Court and a justice with ties to Wichita talked to a group of Wichitans on Saturday afternoon about their job, its challenges and rewards, and answered questions about legislative actions aimed at changing the way Kansas justices are selected as well as impeachment of judges in the state.

Chief Justice Lawton Nuss began his remarks by reciting the oath he took when he was appointed as a justice to the court in 2002 by then Gov. Bill Graves and again in 2011, when he was named chief justice.

He said he keeps a copy of that oath on the wall of his chambers.

“Boiled down, it means we support the constitution of the United States and the state of Kansas,” he said. “… Every day when I go into my chambers, I see that oath and I’m reminded of my fidelity and where my allegiance is owed.”

Justice Carol Beier, who was a partner at Foulston Siefkin in Wichita before being appointed to the Kansas Court of Appeals in 2000, and then the Kansas Supreme Court in 2003 by then Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, told the 60 or so people at the Women for Kansas Wichita chapter gathering that she wanted to do more than just represent an individual client, which she did as a lawyer.

“I found that I had a desire to participate at a deeper level in the decision making and in the kind of the rough and tumble of it, I suppose,” she said. “… I like get to involved in the tough issues, bringing a voice to the table.”

Nuss and Beier said one of the toughest issues they face as justices is making decisions on cases involving the abuse of children.

“The cases that I find the most agonizing are child sexual abuse cases, and when you read the transcripts of what the defendant was convicted of, you have a hard time believing that sort of thing goes on in Kansas,” Nuss said. “And you read the testimony of the victims, and your heart goes out to those children for what happened to them. … But as you dig deeper and look at the law, there are times when you say, ‘as hard as this is, I have to say that this defendant’s constitutional rights were violated.’ …Those are very difficult parts of our job, but we cannot let our personal feelings override what our obligation is to support the constitution of the United States and the state of Kansas, because ultimately that is supporting the people of Kansas.”

One of the first questions that Nuss and Beier were asked by the audience was about efforts to change the process of how a Supreme Court justice is selected. An effort proposed in the Legislature would allow the governor to appoint state Supreme Court justices subject to Senate confirmation, similar to the way federal judges are selected. The current selection system uses a nominating commission made up of five lawyers selected by the state’s lawyers and four people selected by the governor. The governor chooses one of three finalists nominated by the panel.

Nuss said he supports the current system because the commission uses a detailed series of background checks, committee interviews, interviews of peers and judges and reviews of a lawyer’s legal writings to determine who it will recommend to the governor.

“It was a very thorough vetting,” Nuss said of the process he underwent. “I don’t think they left a grain of sand unturned on that beach. It’s for people who are serious about it, and it’s competitive and you get a chance to see the credentials of the people who are applying.”

“If you don’t have that system, you don’t know how that person who is picked stacks up,” he said.

On the next question from an audience member, about a Senate bill that would expand the reasons for impeaching Supreme Court justices, Nuss deferred to Beier. The impeachment bill is seen as a symptom of the clash between the conservative-led Legislature and the judiciary, especially over a school financing decision that will require millions of dollars to remedy.

“I can say I understand one of the new suggested grounds (for impeachment) is rudeness, or something like that,” Beier said. “And I’m happy to report that all of our mothers taught us manners. … The challenge today, we have a fairly interesting if not hostile environment to work in outside the building. … It really at the end of the day makes no difference in the job we’re trying to deliver to all of you. We just keep on keepin’ on. And I have a lot of trust in Kansans, ultimately. A lot of trust in their common sense and, once educated about what the issues are, their ability to cut the wheat from the chaff.”

Jerry Siebenmark: 316-268-6576, @jsiebenmark

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