Ouster group disappointed ‘voters left bad justices in place’

A push to remake the Kansas Supreme Court in the Nov. 8 election seemed to be faltering Tuesday night.
A push to remake the Kansas Supreme Court in the Nov. 8 election seemed to be faltering Tuesday night. File photo

UPDATED 1:20 A.M.: In a statement released early Wednesday morning, Kansas Supreme Court Chief Lawton Nuss thanked voters for their support.

“Our justices' ability to make decisions based on the rule of law and the constitution has been preserved,” he wrote. “The supreme court’s ability to make decisions based on the rule of law — and the people’s constitution —has been preserved.

“For over 60 years, Kansas has had a tradition of keeping politics out of the courtroom of the supreme court. Tonight's outcome affirms this tradition, ensuring that the leaders of the judicial branch are shielded from the political winds.”

UPDATED 10:25 P.M.: In response to a request for comment on the judicial vote so far, anti-retention group Kansans for Justice said it is “disappointed that Kansas voters left bad justices in place in Topeka.”

The group wanted four of the five justices seeking retention unseated for vacating death sentences given to five men, including Jonathan and Reginald Carr. The brothers committed a string of crimes over a nine-day period in 2000.

“This is a win for criminals and a loss for victims,” said Amy Scott James, whose boyfriend was one of five people shot execution-style in a frozen soccer field on Dec. 15, 2000, after enduring three hours of sexual assaults and robberies at the Carrs’ hands.

“This has always been about Brad (Heyka), Aaron (Sander), Jason (Befort), Heather (Muller), Ann (Walenta), the two survivors, and other victims in other cases that have been mistreated,” James said.

“Family members will continue to wait for the long and painful appeal process that the Kansas Supreme Court Justices control.” The group also mounted an unsuccessful campaign to oust Justices Lee Johnson and Eric Rosen in 2014.

By 10:25 p.m., the four justices at the center of the anti-retention campaign – Lawton Nuss, Marla Luckert, Carol Beier and Dan Biles – each had 57 percent support from voters.

Caleb Stegall, who was not a target because he joined the court after the rulings came down, had 71 percent support from voters.

Not quite half of the 3,509 precincts were reporting.

UPDATED 9 P.M.: The outlook continues to be favorable for Kansas Supreme Court justices seeking to retain their seats.

Lawton Nuss and Dan Biles both had 58 percent support from voters, with 341 of 3,509 precincts reporting. Carol Beier and Marla Luckert each had 59 percent support, while Caleb Stegall had 73 percent.

Joyce Morrison, spokeswoman for Kansans for Fair Courts, said she was “feeling hopeful” about the results so far. The group was the main one promoting retention of all five justices.

“We do have a long way to go, but going into Election Day I think we felt good about the retention elections, and today’s the day,” she said.

Groups seeking to oust the justices either couldn’t immediately be reached for comment on the early results or didn’t want to give a statement until the final results were in.

The justices are spending the evening watching the election results come in privately with the families, Morrison said.

ORIGINAL STORY: Early election results indicate voters want to keep Kansas Supreme Court justices who have been the target of campaigns to oust them over their rulings on the death penalty, abortion and school funding.

Justices Lawton Nuss, Marla Luckert, Carol Beier and Dan Biles faced staunch opposition by at least three groups in this year’s retention races.

But the foursome seemed poised to hang on to their seats – with more than two-thirds of the vote in their favor – as numbers from the first precincts rolled in Tuesday evening.

Fifty-six of 3,509 precincts were reporting results by 8:15 p.m.

A fifth justice up for retention, Caleb Stegall, is also receiving a majority of support from voters. He was not a target of ouster campaigns.

Several groups this year urged voters to vote against retaining four of the five justices.

Among them is Kansans for Justice, which sought to oust Nuss, Luckert, Beier and Biles for their roles in overturning death sentences for a handful of Kansas inmates. The group is made up of the family and friends of those kidnapped, robbed, sexually assault and killed by Jonathan and Reginald Carr during a nine-day crime spree in Wichita in 2000.

Anti-abortion group Kansans for Life and the Kansas Republican Party also urged voters to reject “all but Stegall.”

Members of the Kansas Supreme Court face a statewide retention vote every six years. Vacancies on the court are filled by gubernatorial appointment.

Kansans for Fair Courts, which is affiliated with the Kansas Values Institute, supports retention for all five justices. It has said unseating them would allow Gov. Sam Brownback to appoint a majority on the court, which would threaten its impartiality.

Brownback, who vocally backed efforts to oust two justices in 2014, has not taken a public stance on the retention races this year.

Six Kansas Court of Appeals judges also seemed poised to keep their seats as the first election results came in Tuesday evening.

Kansans for Life sought to oust Steve Leben, G. Joseph Pierron, G. Gordon Atcheson and Karen Arnold-Burger over a split decision that upheld a lower court’s ruling to block restrictions on one type of abortion. The group supported retaining David Bruns and Kathryn Gardner.

Each had more than 60 percent of the vote in their favor by 8 p.m.

Amy Renee Leiker: 316-268-6644, @amyreneeleiker