The Kansas Senate confirmed Kathryn Gardner to a position on the Court of Appeals on Wednesday. She had been nominated by Gov. Sam Brownback earlier this year,
The Senate vote was 31-9. Every Democrat voted against the confirmation, while only one Republican broke from the rest of the party.
Minutes after the confirmation, Brownback issued a statement praising Gardner’s objectivity and calling her “dedicated to the rule of law.”
“Kansans want judges of keen intellect and integrity and who respect the values of our state,” Brownback said.
The lone Republican to oppose Gardner’s confirmation was Senate Vice President Jeff King of Independence, an attorney and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. King has said he thought there were more qualified candidates than Gardner, who has spent the bulk of her career as a law clerk.
“She is an outstanding law clerk and by all accounts an even finer human being, but when we do confirmations, we compare the people who are up to other people we know are interested in the job,” King said. “And I thought there were other attorneys who had an even more exemplary record who would have filled the Court of Appeals with even more distinction.”
The governor’s office rejected open-records requests from The Eagle and the Associated Press for the names of other applicants, citing an exemption for personnel records. The Senate passed a bill two weeks ago that would require the governor to name future applicants; that bill now sits before the House.
The Eagle learned last week that two of the other applicants were Dennis Depew, a Neodesha attorney, and Suzanne Valdez, a law professor at the University of Kansas.
King would not say which candidates specifically he thought were more qualified than Gardner.
“This is nothing against Kathryn Gardner whatsoever,” King added.
Sen. Greg Smith, R-Overland Park, the vice chairman of the Judiciary Committee, disagreed. On the Senate floor, he praised Gardner’s “grace under pressure” during the committee hearing and pushed back on the notion that as a clerk, she has not amassed as extensive a paper trail as other attorneys or judges.
“Kathryn Gardner has a paper trail, an extensive paper trail, that shows extreme knowledge of the law,” Smith said.
Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, said she reviewed documents Gardner submitted to the Legislature, met with her earlier this month and was assured of her qualifications.
Wagle, the first female president of the Kansas Senate, said Gardner would make a strong addition to the Court of Appeals and added that she’s particularly happy to see the governor nominate a woman.
Gardner was one of the signatories to a controversial petition to restrict access to books about sex at the Topeka Public Library in 2009, an effort led by Kim Borchers, who now is the governor’s appointments secretary.
During the confirmation hearings last week, King compared Gardner to Harriet Miers, the former White House attorney whom President George W. Bush controversially nominated for a position on the U.S. Supreme Court in 2005. Brownback, then a U.S. senator, was instrumental in causing Miers to withdraw from consideration, contending she did not have judicial experience.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, also drew a comparison to Miers, noting that neither of Brownback’s nominees for the Court of Appeals, Gardner and Caleb Stegall in 2013, had prior judicial experience.
Brownback ushered in an overhaul of the nomination process for the Court of Appeals during his first term and is attempting to do the same with the Supreme Court in his second term.
Hensley said the federal model, in which executives choose nominees who go before the Senate for confirmation, results in flawed candidates and ensures that appointees are partisan allies.