Politics & Government

Prosecutors find Kansas nominating commission didn’t break transparency laws

Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett
Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett File photo

Prosecutors have cleared the commission responsible for nominating Kansas Supreme Court justices of wrongdoing after Senate President Susan Wagle alleged the panel violated transparency laws.

The decision clears the way for Gov. Laura Kelly to choose a justice from the three names sent to her by the commission – including one opposed by the anti-abortion group Kansans for Life.

Wagle, a Wichita Republican who is running for U.S. Senate, earlier this week filed a complaint with the Kansas Attorney General’s Office, accusing the state Supreme Court Nominating Commission of not making its votes public during a meeting last month as required by state law.

During its meeting, the commission went through several rounds of voting to narrow down the list of applicants to three potential nominees. Those votes were conducted through ballots and the votes of the individual commission members were not disclosed at the time.

A final vote to forward three nominees to Kelly was public, however.

Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett on Thursday found the commission hadn’t violated the law. He investigated Wagle’s complaint after both Schmidt and the Shawnee County District Attorney’s Office stepped aside because of conflicts of interest.

Bennett found the commission’s process, because the final vote was public, complied with state law.

“Because this was accomplished during an open meeting, in the presence of members of the public, by a show of hands, there was no violation” of Kansas law, Bennett said in a written decision.

If Wagle’s complaint had been validated, it could have upended Kelly’s selection of a replacement for Justice Lee Johnson. Kelly can choose from Dennis Depew, Steven Obermeier and Evelyn Wilson.

Depew and Obermeier both work in the Attorney General’s Office. Wilson is the chief judge of Shawnee County District Court and is opposed by Kansans for Life.

In a statement, Wagle said she was “disappointed and shocked” by Bennett’s decision.

“He has now set a dangerous precedence to allow public bodies at all levels of government to cleverly manipulate their electoral process, on a whim, without published rules, and without publishign the specific response of a each member during the process,” Wagle said.

The nominating commission will meet again this year because Kelly must also replace retiring Chief Justice Lawton Nuss.

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.