Politics & Government

Kelly nominee defended abortion restrictions in court, but vows to follow precedent

Gov. Laura Kelly’s nominee to the Kansas Court of Appeals has defended abortion restrictions in court – a sharp contrast with the governor’s own support for abortion rights.

Kelly’s nominee, Sarah Warner of Lenexa, was on a team of attorneys that fought to protect a law banning a common method of second-trimester abortion. They argued the state constitution doesn’t include the right to abortion.

The state Supreme Court rejected their arguments in a landmark decision last month upholding the right of women to end a pregnancy. Justice Dan Biles also accused the attorneys of selectively quoting from medical journals to exclude evidence that damaged their position.

Planned Parenthood is now expressing concern ahead of a confirmation vote by the Senate. But Warner said Tuesday she would apply Supreme Court precedent affirming the right to an abortion. She also pushed back against Biles’ criticism.

The Senate will vote Wednesday after a legislative committee unanimously recommended her. Her confirmation appears assured.

Senators praised her record, which includes teaching at Washburn Law School and serving as president of the Kansas Bar Association. Some even predicted she may soon be elevated to the state Supreme Court.

Still, the vote comes at a pivotal time in the struggle over abortion.

Abortion rights opponents in Kansas have promised to advance a constitutional amendment to reverse the Supreme Court decision. At the same time, neighboring Missouri and other states have passed laws severely restricting the procedure.

“Ms. Warner’s record in her private law practice does raise concerns for Planned Parenthood ahead of her confirmation vote tomorrow,” said Rachel Sweet, regional director of public policy and organizing for Planned Parenthood Great Plains Votes.

Sweet said she was encouraged that Warner had broad-based support from the legal community. “However, we’re experiencing an onslaught of politically motivated attacks on reproductive rights across the country, and an impartial judiciary is more important than ever,” she said.

“Kelly has made it clear since day one that she is returning to a merit-based selection process for judges,” Sweet said. “We will be monitoring Ms. Warner’s confirmation closely and are hopeful that this process will yield judges who will carry out their duties fairly and impartially.”

Kelly nominated Warner after her first nominee, Judge Jeffry Jack, was derailed by the emergence of old partisan, profanity-laced tweets. Both Jack and Warner’s names were sent to Kelly by a committee she created to evaluate judicial applicants, a process the governor isn’t required to follow.

Kelly spokeswoman Ashley All said Kelly’s position and record on women’s access to reproductive healthcare is clear. Kelly looks for “smart, dedicated, impartial, independent judges” and said Warner has received support from attorneys and judges across Kansas.

“Governor Kelly has not discussed what Sarah’s personal beliefs about abortion are, but after thorough discussion regarding Sarah’s approach to the law and her view of the role of a Court of Appeals judge, the Governor is confident that Sarah understands that role and will apply the law fairly and impartially,” All said.

During Warner’s confirmation hearing Tuesday, Sen. Vic Miller, a Topeka Democrat, asked Warner several times about the Supreme Court’s abortion decision. Each time, Warner promised to follow the high court’s precedent.

“The Kansas Court of Appeals is bound by Kansas Supreme Court precedent,” Warner said.

Warner said in response to other questions that the role of a judge is to interpret the law. Policymaking should be left to the Legislature and governor, she indicated.

In recent years, Warner’s law firm, Thompson Ramsdell Qualseth & Warner, has worked with the Kansas Attorney General’s Office to defend Senate Bill 95, a 2015 law that prohibits dilation and evacuation abortions. Warner’s name has been appearing on court filings as a challenge to the ban made its way to the Supreme Court.

When the court issued its ruling in April, Justice Dan Biles released a concurring opinion accusing the attorneys of selectively quoting from a medical journal to bolster their position. Biles showed how a quote used in the state’s brief dropped five sentences from the actual text of the journal article, which dealt with fetal pain.

Biles wrote the quotation showed a “stunning lack of candor” and said the full quote bolstered testimony from expert witnesses put forward by those fighting the law.

Warner told reporters after the hearing there was no dishonest intent. She declined to say whether she had worked on the quote, saying the case is still ongoing.

“It’s unfortunate that Justice Biles used that language,” Warner said, indicating that can come with working on difficult cases.

Some senators questioned Warner over her legal education. She graduated in 2006 from Ave Maria School of Law, a Catholic law school in Florida that Tom Monaghan, the founder of Domino’s Pizza, helped open in 2000.

Miller asked Warner why she chose to go to there, given that the school had just opened. She responded that Ave Maria had been offering substantial scholarships to attend, but added she had been impressed by the school once she visited.

Senators’ praise for Warner was a marked change from their condemnation of Jack. Earlier this month, senators returned to Topeka to vote down Jack, whose nomination was resurrected because of a legal dispute.

“Yours is a night and day contrast to the prior nominee,” Sen. Dennis Pyle, R-Hiawatha, told Warner.

Miller suggested she may soon be elevated to the Supreme Court.

“The only sadness I have about this applicant is I don’t think she’s going to be on the Court of Appeals very long,” Miller said. “Because I think she would be at the front of the line, even before she sits on the Court of Appeals, as our best candidate to serve on the Kansas Supreme Court.”

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Jonathan Shorman covers Kansas politics and the Legislature for The Wichita Eagle and The Kansas City Star. He’s been covering politics for six years, first in Missouri and now in Kansas. He holds a journalism degree from the University of Kansas.