Family and friends of the victims of the Carr brothers gathered Wednesday outside the Kansas Supreme Court to call for the removal of four of the court’s justices this fall.
Five of the court’s justices are up for retention in November. Kansas for Justice, a group that formed after the court’s 2014 decision to vacate the death sentences of Jonathan and Reginald Carr, is campaigning against the retention of four of those justices.
Vinny DiGiovanni, the brother-in-law of Brad Heyka, one of the five people murdered by the Carrs in 2000, accused the court of a “blatant disregard” for the “impact of their decisions on the victims, the families of the victims” in death penalty cases.
The court upheld the Carrs’ convictions in 2014 but set up a scenario in which the families of victims might have had to testify at new sentencing hearings. The decision was reversed in January by the U.S. Supreme Court.
“They’re two separate pains,” DiGiovanni said about the impact of the decision. “Obviously, the tragedy took away something that can never be replaced. The occurrence in 2014 was totally different. I’m a proud American. I’m a proud Kansan, and to be let down and disappointed by this level of government, a different form of pain.”
Kansans for Justice is campaigning against the retention of Chief Justice Lawton Nuss and Justices Dan Biles, Carol Beier and Marla Luckert. The only justice the group is not seeking to oust is Caleb Stegall, who was appointed to the court by Gov. Sam Brownback after the Carr decision was made.
The group campaigned to oust Justices Eric Rosen and Lee Johnson in 2014 and nearly succeeded. The two justices were each retained with less than 53 percent of the vote, which is above the 50 percent threshold needed to stay on the bench but far below the usual margin in a judicial retention race.
DiGiovanni accused the justices of making rulings based on their personal or political opposition to the death penalty. “If they feel the urge to change the laws of Kansas, then I suggest that they run for another branch of government,” he said.
Since 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court has overturned six of the Kansas Supreme Court’s rulings in death penalty cases.
“We don’t want to be here,” said Amy Scott James, Heyka’s former girlfriend, pointing to the Kansas Supreme Court. “We’re here because those individuals in the building behind us forced us here.”
A spokeswoman for the Kansas Supreme Court said she could not comment on the case because of pending issues before the court.
Brownback vocally backed the efforts to oust the justices in 2014 and made it a cornerstone of his campaign during the final stretch of the 2014 gubernatorial race.
James said no one with the organization had talked to Brownback in 2014, and that they’ve had no contact with him since.
She said the group wants to make sure it remains nonpartisan but added that Brownback’s “a Kansan like anyone else” and is entitled to speak out on the issue.
“The Governor has not been engaged in judicial retention elections to this point,” Eileen Hawley, the governor’s spokeswoman, wrote in an e-mail. “We have heard from Kansans who are upset with the State Supreme Court ruling on the Carr Brothers and who feel some of the justices do not reflect their values or beliefs.”
If the group succeeds in its effort to oust the justices, it would empower Brownback to make four new appointments to the bench, a majority of the seven-person court, during his final two years in office.
A separate group, Kansans for Fair Courts, which supports retaining the justices, expressed sympathy for the Carr victims but pushed back against the notion that the justices should be removed from office based on that decision.
“We understand that this was a really horrific case, and nobody’s disputing that,” said Joyce Morrison, spokeswoman for Kansans for Fair Courts. “But we’re asking for their patience in this really long and tedious process of going through the court.”
Morrison said that opposition to a ruling is “not a good enough reason to oust justices who have been thoroughly vetted” and emphasized that the Carrs have remained in prison during the entire time the case has been litigated.
“We believe that our justices are fair and impartial,” she said. “They’re doing a good job and a very difficult job. It’s really important that we keep politics out of our courts so they can remain this neutral third party system that carefully and thoughtfully evaluates all of these cases.”
After the Topeka event, the group headed to Wichita for a news conference at the Parents of Murdered Children Memorial Monument in North Riverside Park. James noted that Heyka’s name and the names of the Carrs’ other victims are on that memorial.
“This really is about them,” she said.