Trend is to vote ‘yes’ on retaining judges

School district attorney Alan Rupe, left, presents his case in a school funding case before the Kansas Supreme Court. (Sept. 21, 2016)
School district attorney Alan Rupe, left, presents his case in a school funding case before the Kansas Supreme Court. (Sept. 21, 2016) File photo

Kansas Supreme Court justices retained their positions for another term despite vocal pushes to unseat them from a handful of groups.

Patrick Miller, professor of political science at the University of Kansas, said Wednesday that the successful retention of Justices Lawton Nuss, Marla Luckert, Carol Beier, Dan Biles and Caleb Stegall follows a pattern in other states of voters keeping judges in office when faced with ballot questions.

“It just seems that if you have these questions on the ballots, voters – maybe for lack of having better knowledge about it even if there was a campaign – just seem to vote ‘yes’ to keep them,” he said.

“The message to vote ‘no’ really fights against that trend.”

No justice has lost his or her seat in a retention vote under the state’s current judicial appointment system.

But Miller said the close margin – between 10 and 12 percentage points for four justices – may also indicate that this year’s anti-retention efforts had “some effectiveness.”

Fifty-six percent of voters said “yes” to retaining Beier, Biles and Luckert, while 55 percent voted to keep Nuss.

Stegall was not the target of the campaigns, which sought to unseat the justices over their rulings on the death penalty, abortion and school funding. Stegall received 71 percent support from voters. He joined the court in 2014.

Justices are appointed rather than elected but are subject to a retention vote every six years. If they win a simple majority, they keep their seats.

In a statement released Wednesday after final but unofficial results were tallied, Nuss – the court’s chief justice – thanked voters for their support.

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

At least three groups called for voters to oust four of the five justices.

Kansans for Justice said it was “disappointed that Kansas voters left bad justices in place” and called their retention “a win for criminals and a loss for victims.”

The group formed in 2014 after the Supreme Court vacated death sentences for Jonathan and Reginald Carr, who killed five people during a Wichita crime spree in 2000. Its decision was later reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Anti-abortion group Kansans for Life, in a written statement, applauded those who cast votes “to oust activist judges.” But, it said, “Sadly, we missed the mark.”

“For now we can only hope the judges have learned a powerful lesson to stop ‘legislating from the bench,’ ” the group’s executive director, Mary Kay Culp, said.

Gov. Sam Brownback, who supported attempts to unseat justices seeking retention in 2014, took no public position on this year’s efforts. Had any of the justices lost their seats, he would have appointed their replacements.

“It was important to have a public discussion about the future of the Kansas judiciary,” his spokeswoman, Eileen Hawley, said in an e-mail on Wednesday.

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