The Kansas Senate voted 21-19 – the barest margin possible – to send the House a bill that would establish “attempting to usurp” legislative powers as grounds for impeaching justices of the state Supreme Court.
At present, the only guideline for an impeachable offense is the Constitution’s provision for “treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors.”
Senate Bill 439 establishes a list of impeachable offenses for Kansas justices and other elected officials, including “attempting to subvert fundamental laws and introduce arbitrary power” and “attempting to usurp the power of the legislative or executive branch of government.”
In an explanation of his “no” vote on Tuesday, Sen. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City, said the bill “blatantly seeks to muzzle our Kansas Supreme Court.”
Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, built on that, saying the purpose of the bill is to intimidate the court by subjecting its members to possible impeachment for “vague, subjective and political reasons.”
Explaining his “yes” vote, Sen. Greg Smith, R-Overland Park, who carried the bill Monday, said it re-establishes the original meaning of “high crimes and misdemeanors,” which he said has been “lost in the 21st century.”
He said failure of officials to properly perform their duty qualifies for that standard.
“These are not necessarily criminal acts, nor do they have to be,” he said.
Sen. Mitch Holmes, R-St. John, said he voted “yes” to keep judges from having absolute power, to the detriment of democracy.
“We live in an era where people believe independent courts and absolute power are synonymous,” Holmes said.
In debate Monday, Holmes cited two examples from the 2014 election of what he sees as impeachable offenses: the decision by the Supreme Court to allow a Democratic candidate to remove his name from the ballot without forcing the party to name a replacement, and a justice allowing her husband to hold a political fundraiser at their home, which she did not attend.
Lawmakers have said the court has overstepped its bounds on the always-contentious issue of school finance.
The court recently ruled that a block grant funding law established by the Legislature at Gov. Sam Brownback’s prompting is not equitably funding schools across the state.
The question of whether the Legislature is providing enough money overall for schools is still pending before the court.
Facing criticism that the bill was a direct attack on the court, a Senate committee amended it to also apply to other elected officers of the state, including the governor and attorney general.
In his vote explanation, Hensley called that a smokescreen to deflect attention from the effect it would have on the courts.
How they voted
Here’s how south-central Kansas senators voted on SB 439, which passed 21-19.
Republicans voting yes: Mike Petersen and Susan Wagle, Wichita; Steve Abrams, Arkansas City; Terry Bruce, Hutchinson; Forrest Knox, Altoona; Ty Masterson, Andover
Republicans voting no: Les Donovan and Michael O’Donnell, Wichita; Dan Kerschen, Garden Plain; Carolyn McGinn, Sedgwick; Richard Wilborn, McPherson
Democrats voting no: Oletha Faust-Goudeau, Wichita