Eagle editorial: Special session needed?

The special legislative session that starts Tuesday is looking less and less like a good idea.

Gov. Sam Brownback called the session to rework the state’s Hard 50 law, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that only juries – not judges, as under Kansas law – can impose the harsher prison sentence. Attorney General Derek Schmidt lobbied for the law fix in part to bolster the state against legal challenges to past sentences.

But making the law change retroactive, as Schmidt wants, would be unconstitutional, according to the Kansas Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. If that’s so – and it likely is – there isn’t as much urgency to hold a special session, which costs taxpayers $35,000 or more a day.

Defense attorneys also argue that concerns are overblown about previously sentenced criminals being eligible for parole after 25 years. If the crime committed was so heinous to justify the original Hard 50 sentence, it is extremely unlikely that the prisoner review board would let the prisoner out early.

With or without the special session, the state is going to face legal challenges. The Kansas Sentencing Commission estimates 106 offenders are serving Hard 50 or Hard 40 sentences, and about another 35 people have cases pending and could receive such a sentence. The cost for the state to call juries to reconsider sentences is estimated at about $875,000, the Topeka Capital-Journal reported.

Though Brownback and GOP legislative leaders want to keep the session focused on the Hard 50 law, that can be difficult to control.

The Senate is required to consider Brownback’s nomination of his chief counsel, Caleb Stegall, to the Kansas Court of Appeals. That means there won’t be much time to vet Stegall (which was supposed to be a big advantage of the new appointment system).

Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, and Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, D-Wichita, are introducing a bill to revoke the state’s proof-of-citizenship requirement for registering to vote. The law has resulted in more than 15,000 Kansans so far being “suspended” from the voting rolls. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that such a requirement is unconstitutional.

If the Legislature is holding a special session to fix one unconstitutional law, Ward and Faust-Goudeau argue, it should fix the voting law, too. And in terms of urgency, there are local elections between now and the start of the regular session next January.

Other lawmakers may have other issues they want to address during the special session, such as abortion.

This special session will be only the 22nd in Kansas’ history. There is a reason why they are rare: They are costly and can be unpredictable.

Also, most issues can wait until the regular session. That likely was the case this time.

For the editorial board, Phillip Brownlee