Politics & Government

Senate OKs proposed constitutional amendment changing how judges are chosen

TOPEKA – The Senate’s new conservative Republican makeup showed its strength Wednesday, voting 28-12 in favor of a constitutional amendment to give the governor the power to appoint state supreme and appeals court judges, subject to Senate confirmation.

The proposal now moves to the House, where some lawmakers say the required two-thirds majority support is questionable. The vote in the Senate was one vote more than the two-thirds majority needed for passage.

The bill would have Kansas voters decide in August 2014 whether to eliminate the existing judicial nominating commission that forwards three candidates to the governor for selection.

Gov. Sam Brownback and his conservative allies say that Kansas judicial selection is undemocratic because it gives an unelected commission the power to pick candidates for the state’s highest two courts. Those who pick judges should be accountable to voters, they say.

“The current system does not have the legitimacy for the voters of the state of Kansas that it needs to,” said Senate Vice President Jeff King, R-Independence, who also serves as the chamber’s Judiciary Committee chairman.

Democrats and some moderate Republicans oppose the idea, saying it consolidates more power with the governor and is a reaction to Supreme Court rulings on education and abortion that conservatives disliked. The current system keeps politics out of the judicial system, they say.

“We have a good system that’s working well,” said Sen. David Haley, D-Kansas City. “Why are we doing this?”

In 1958, Kansans approved the state’s current process, in which a nine-member nominating commission reviews applications, interviews candidates for vacancies on the state Supreme Court and forwards three candidates to the governor.

A similar process was later approved for the Court of Appeals.

The commission is made up of five members elected by other lawyers and four appointed by the governor.

In the past, the system also has been criticized for favoring urban candidates over rural ones, providing too few finalists from western Kansas or advancing too few minority applicants.

“It’s absolutely undemocratic and a secretive process that needs to be changed,” said freshman Sen. Greg Smith, R-Overland Park.

The Kansas Bar Association has fought the plan to shift power to the governor, and it has offered an alternative that would let lawyers pick four, the governor pick five and House and Senate leaders pick six members of the nominating commission.

Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, said that since a constitutional amendment is extremely important to the state, any vote on it should come in a November election, which traditionally has higher voter turnout.

But King said voters will show up for important matters regardless of the date and that Kansas should vote on the matter as soon as possible. McGinn’s idea failed on a 26-14 vote.

The House has its own proposal mirroring the Senate measure, except it would put the proposed amendment on the November 2014 general election ballot.

Conservative Republicans also control the House; the GOP has an overall majority of 92-33, and supporters need 84 votes for a two-thirds majority.

But most or all of the Democrats are expected to vote against the proposal, and at least a dozen House members are moderate Republicans.

Contributing: Associated Press