Politics & Government

Spending likely hits $1M in campaigns over top Kansas court

Kansas Supreme Court Justice Carol Beier, shown here in 2014, is one of five justices facing a retention vote.
Kansas Supreme Court Justice Carol Beier, shown here in 2014, is one of five justices facing a retention vote. File photo

A campaign to unseat a majority of the Kansas Supreme Court’s members has likely inspired more than $1 million in total spending by the groups opposing and supporting the justices.

Data released Thursday by the Center for Public Integrity showed two groups on opposite sides of the campaign to remove four of the seven justices spent nearly $908,000 on television ad time through October. The Washington-based center bases its figures on widely accepted estimates from a media tracking firm.

But the figure doesn’t include radio ads, mailings or other spending. The anti-abortion group Kansans for Life has sent mailers to thousands of households, and a PAC formed by an aide and former aide to Secretary of State Kris Kobach is running radio spots against retaining the justices.

A group linked to the effort to keep the justices on the court received a $150,000 grant from a Massachusetts-based fund, though the money was for public education about the need for impartial courts and not election-related activities, according to a program officer.

Conservative Republicans, abortion opponents and critics of Supreme Court rulings overturning death sentences in capital murder cases are trying to unseat the four justices. They were appointed by predecessors of conservative GOP Gov. Sam Brownback, who would have a chance to remake the court if the ouster effort is successful.

“I would say that Kansas is one of the more important states this year when it comes to fair courts,” said Kathy Bonnifield, program officer for the Judicial Independence Project of the Piper Fund, of Amherst, Mass., which made the education grant.

The Piper Fund’s grant went to the Kansas Values Institute. Kansans for Fair Courts, the organization spearheading the campaign to keep the justices, is a project of the institute.

The Center for Public Integrity reported that Kansans for Fair Courts spent $402,000 on television ad time through Oct. 31.

Ryan Wright, executive director of Kansans for Fair Courts, did not return telephone messages seeking comment Thursday. Bonnifield said the Piper Fund’s work is nonpartisan and the Kansas grant “is focused on educating the public on the importance of fair and impartial courts,” not ads or other election activities.

Kansas voters decide every six years whether a justice remains on the court. Chief Justice Lawton Nuss and Justices Marla Luckert, Carol Beier and Dan Biles are targeted for ouster.

Nuss and Luckert were appointed by moderate GOP Gov. Bill Graves, and Beier and Biles by Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius.

A fifth justice, Caleb Stegall, also is on the ballot. He is Brownback’s only appointee, and he’s not a target.

State campaign finance laws do not require groups supporting or opposing justices to disclose any contributions or spending, and organizations on both sides have not volunteered information.

The Center for Public Integrity reported that an anti-retention group, Kansans for Justice, spent nearly $506,000 on television ad time through October.

The group was formed by murder victims’ family members upset with rulings in capital punishment cases. Amy James, one of the founders, said during a news conference Wednesday that it is not associated with Brownback or “any other group or any other coalition.”

Abortion opponents are active in the ouster effort, and a PAC, Kansans for Conservative Values, is running its own radio ads in the Kansas City area. The PAC plans at least $31,000 in spots, according to data collected by the Brennan Center for Justice.

The PAC formed in August with Samantha Poetter as chairwoman and Moriah Day as treasurer. Day is an assistant to Kobach, while Poetter is a former communications specialist.