Politics & Government

Kansas Supreme Court justice retiring ahead of expected GOP push to change system

Kansas Supreme Court Justice Lee Johnson will retire in September, ahead of an expected Republican push next year to change how Kansas selects justices to its highest court.

The court has issued a series of controversial decisions in the past few years that have angered conservatives. Drawing the most fury, the justices in April upheld abortion as a fundamental right for women.

Johnson’s retirement now likely assures Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly will be able to pick his successor before any possible changes to the process for picking justices. Johnson will retire Sept. 8, kicking off a merit-based selection process that will end in Kelly choosing from several finalists.

“It has been a profound honor and privilege to be a part of the highest court in Kansas, as well as the Court of Appeals, and to serve with so many knowledgeable and collegial jurists on both appellate courts,” Johnson said in a statement Wednesday.

Johnson has been on the court since 2007. Whoever replaces him will be the first justice to join the court since Gov. Sam Brownback appointed Caleb Stegall in 2014.

“Justice Lee Johnson has been a dedicated and distinguished public servant, first in Sumner County and then for 18 years on the bench in Kansas, to include 12 years on the Kansas Supreme Court,” Kelly said in a statement.

Johnson was in the majority in the decision upholding abortion rights. He and other justices also repeatedly ruled over the past few years that Kansas schools were not constitutionally funded, before approving a funding system earlier this year.

Johnson, 72, would have been up for a retention vote in 2020 if he had not retired. Every Kansas Supreme Court justice who has been on the ballot has been retained, but Johnson was only narrowly retained in 2014, with 52.6 percent of the vote.

His retirement triggers a selection process outlined in the Kansas Constitution that differs substantially from how justices are selected at the federal level. In Kansas, a nomination commission advances three names to the governor, who then chooses one.

Unlike in Washington, D.C., the Kansas Senate plays no role in confirming justices. But some Republican lawmakers want to change that.

Sen. Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican, forced a debate in May over a constitutional amendment that would require Kansas to use the federal system.

Ultimately, senators did not vote on the measure. But lawmakers are expected to pursue the issue more aggressively in 2020.

“Do we stand for checks and balances, or do we stand for consolidating power in the hands of a few narrow interests? Do we stand for good government, or do we continue to allow a flawed system to perpetuate and produce even more extreme rulings and results?” Masterson said in a May statement.

In explaining their support for a change, Republicans point to Kelly’s previous nomination of Judge Jeffry Jack to the Court of Appeals, which uses the federal model. Senators voted down Jack after discovering he had sent partisan and profanity-laced tweets.

Republicans contend that without Senate confirmation, Jack might currently sit on the appeals court.

Supporters of changing the system face an uphill climb. A constitutional amendment to alter how justices are picked requires two-thirds support from both the House and Senate. Then, a majority of voters statewide would have to approve it.

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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.
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