Editorials

Governors are correct: Retain Supreme Court justices

Four former Kansas governors — Bill Graves (from left), Kathleen Sebelius, Mike Hayden and John Carlin — campaigned together in 2016 to retain state Supreme Court justices.
Four former Kansas governors — Bill Graves (from left), Kathleen Sebelius, Mike Hayden and John Carlin — campaigned together in 2016 to retain state Supreme Court justices. File photo

Four former Kansas governors are performing a valuable service in defending the state’s judicial branch and urging voters to retain Kansas Supreme Court justices in the November election.

John Carlin, Mike Hayden, Bill Graves and Kathleen Sebelius met with media this week to raise concerns about “an unprecedented assault on the judiciary.”

Sebelius noted that Gov. Sam Brownback has sought to change how justices are appointed. His allies in the Legislature also considered ways to force out or impeach justices and weaken their authority – even linking court funding to a desired ruling.

Now the Kansas Republican Party and other groups are pushing to remove justices they don’t like. They are urging voters not to retain Chief Justice Lawton Nuss and justices Carol Beier, Dan Biles and Marla Luckert. The only Supreme Court justice they want to keep is Caleb Stegall, who was appointed by Brownback.

The former governors support the retention of all the justices, including Stegall, for two main reasons: The justices deserve it, and removing them would disrupt and damage the court system.

The governors described the justices as fair and impartial jurists who seek to faithfully follow the law and the Constitution, even when doing so may not be popular.

“They have served with distinction,” Graves said.

Though they respect the family and friends of the Carr brothers’ victims, the governors don’t think that one case is reason to not retain the justices. They argued the court was doing what it was supposed to when it objected to the Carr brothers being sentenced together: carefully vetting the case against the state’s capital punishment law and the Constitution. They consider the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of that decision as the judicial process working as intended.

Hayden also noted that less than 0.5 percent of the Kansas Supreme Court’s decisions have been overturned while Nuss has been chief justice.

“That’s a stellar record worthy of retention,” he said.

But the governors also are concerned about the “bad precedent” and damage that could result from voting out justices based on politics or because they made an unpopular ruling.

Carlin said such action would undermine the court’s independence and could discourage talented attorneys from joining the court.

Hayden feared removing that many justices at once would create chaos and “be catastrophic to justice in Kansas.”

The governors contend this is not a partisan issue, noting that two of the justices up for retention were appointed by Graves, a Republican, and two by Sebelius, a Democrat. Rather, this is about respecting and preserving an independent judiciary.

“When people come before the courts, they deserve a fair and impartial hearing, and that’s what they’ve gotten with these five justices,” Hayden said.

The justices should be retained.

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