Politics & Government

Kansas Supreme Court impeachment bill advances in state Senate

The Wichita Eagle

In what one lawmaker called “a sharp stick in the eye” to the state Supreme Court, the Senate on Monday advanced a bill establishing new standards for impeaching justices.

Stung by court decisions on school finance and death penalty cases, lawmakers are working toward creating a specific list of impeachable offenses, including “attempting to subvert fundamental laws and introduce arbitrary power” and “attempting to usurp the power of the legislative or executive branch of government.”

At present, the only guideline for an impeachable offense is the Constitution’s provision for “treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors.”

The Senate bill specifies some, but not all, crimes that could qualify. It advanced on a voice vote, with a roll-call vote set for Tuesday morning. SB 439 would also apply to constitutional officers of the executive branch, such as the governor or attorney general.

During the hourlong debate, Sen. Mitch Holmes, R-St. John, cited two examples of potential impeachable offenses for justices: the 2014 decision by the Supreme Court to allow a Democratic Senate candidate off the ballot without forcing the party to name a replacement, and a justice allowing her husband to hold a political fundraiser that she did not attend at their home.

Democrats railed against the impeachment bill.

“This bill, in my opinion, is nothing more than a political statement in an election year,” said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka.

He said the intent is to intimidate the Supreme Court as it continues to render decisions in the Gannon school finance case that alleges the Legislature failed its constitutional duty to provide suitable funding for education.

Two examples cited

In the 2014 U.S. Senate case that Holmes cited, Shawnee County District Attorney Chad Taylor withdrew from the ballot after winning the Democratic primary, giving better-funded independent candidate Greg Orman a clear shot at unseating Sen. Pat Roberts, a Republican.

Republicans cried foul when the court didn’t force the Democrats to name a new candidate.

The applicable state law says that when a candidate withdraws after the primary, “such vacancy shall be filled by the party committee.”

Holmes said the Legislature had to rewrite the law “because they (the justices) couldn’t understand what ‘shall’ means.”

In the other case he alleged to be impeachable, Holmes cited a $20-a-plate campaign barbecue held in 2014 on behalf of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Paul Davis.

The event was hosted by Richard Green, a teacher and the husband of Supreme Court Justice Carol Beier, at the home they share. Although Beier did not attend the event or endorse the candidate, Holmes said it still violated a judicial rule against direct or indirect participation in partisan campaign activity.

“That would be indirect participation in partisan politics,” he said.

Application questions

Democrats questioned how the new impeachment standards could be applied. It takes a majority of the justices to overturn a Legislature-approved law, the only way they could possibly be seen to be usurping legislative powers.

“No one justice can do that,” said Sen. David Haley, D-Kansas City and the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. “I still don’t see how this (impeachment grounds) applies to a group.

“I know we have a backdrop that some are very concerned with the decisions this current court has made, so we want to put a sharp stick in the eye” of the justices, Haley said.

Haley also said voters can do something about justices they don’t like. Justices must stand for retention elections every six years.

Sen. Greg Smith, R-Overland Park, said the retention election system doesn’t work because judges are never voted out of office.

And he criticized the current standards for the House to impeach a judge and the Senate to try the case.

He said only one judge has been impeached in the history of the state, for being intoxicated on duty.

“And he was acquitted,” Smith said.

Dion Lefler: 316-268-6527, @DionKansas