Politics & Government

New Kansas workers comp judge approved after rejection of previous nominee

Kansas Secretary of Labor Lana Gordon has approved a state panel’s second selection for an administrative law judge position after rejecting its first choice.

Steve Roth, who has served as a magistrate judge since 1993, will take over as an administrative law judge handling workers compensation cases in the Topeka area. Roth was nominated by a state panel’s 5-2 vote last week after Gordon rejected nominee Julie Sample.

Gordon did not explain why she rejected Sample’s nomination, but in a release, she praised Roth’s 22 years of experience as a magistrate judge.

The selection process has generated some controversy. The position previously belonged to Judge Brad Avery, who labor activists say wasn’t retained because of a perception that he was too favorable to plaintiffs.

The Workers Compensation and Employment Security Boards Nominating Committee held interviews for Avery’s replacement at the offices of the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, which drew scrutiny.

Despite controversy over the location, Sample was a selection that organized labor could support. Bruce Tunnell, executive director of the AFL-CIO, credited this to media attention, which upset some members of the committee.

When Gordon rejected Sample’s nomination, Tunnell and other labor activists said they were concerned it was for the purpose of selecting a candidate who would be more favorable to employers. But when the committee met via phone last week, it selected Roth, who was Tunnell’s first choice among the candidates interviewed.

The nominating committee was set up in 2013 as part of a series of reforms to workers compensation under Gov. Sam Brownback. It includes Tunnell as a representative for the labor community; Eric Stafford, the legislative director of the Kansas Chamber of Commerce; representatives from the insurance industry; and other stakeholders.

Labor activists have said the group is set up to unfairly favor business, but Stafford said the two recent votes prove that’s not the case. He said organized labor is pushing “a lie that somebody’s out to get them.”

“They’re trying to sell headlines,” Stafford said. “It doesn’t sell headlines for The Wichita Eagle to sit there and say business and labor are working together on getting the best judges in the state of Kansas.”

Tunnell said he was surprised by Gordon’s approval of Roth’s nomination, but he continued to maintain that the votes went in Roth’s favor because of media focus on the issue.

“They can say what they want to say, but this committee’s stacked, and because the press was there, we got somebody who we thought was qualified,” Tunnell said.

Reach Bryan Lowry at 785-296-3006 or blowry@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @BryanLowry3.