The embellishment “the Kansas Supreme Court let the Carr brothers off the hook” is nothing new. But its continued use by Gov. Sam Brownback and his political allies since its derided inclusion in a 2014 campaign ad is fodder for a political power grab in the November election.
The power grab opportunity is too good for the politicians to pass up. Seven justices sit on the Kansas Supreme Court. Five of them are on the November ballot. Voters will cast a yes-or-no vote to keep each justice. Unseating five justices allows Brownback to stack the court with his replacements.
The politicians’ criticism is false.
Since their arrests, the infamous Carr brothers are in lockup. There’s no chance for releasing them. The evidence of their unspeakable crimes is overwhelming. A Sedgwick County jury rightly convicted them after a lengthy trial.
Each brother appealed his conviction, complaining of legal errors during the trial. But the Kansas Supreme Court upheld each brother’s conviction for capital murder, which carried with it a life sentence.
The court also upheld Reginald Carr’s conviction of 32 crimes and Jonathan Carr’s conviction of 25 crimes, which significantly added prison time on top of the life sentences.
That’s not letting the brothers “off the hook.” They’re in prison. The Supreme Court didn’t spare the brothers from eventually receiving the death penalty. They will either die in prison, or the state will put them to death.
Trial court judges and Supreme Court justices have the solemn responsibility of ensuring justice by guaranteeing the defendant a fair trial and considering all the evidence, including the victim’s testimony and society’s concerns. That’s justice. Justice administered in a fair and impartial manner based on the law.
The court is doing that. Recently, it upheld the death sentence of John E. Robinson Sr., the serial killer from Olathe who stored the bodies of some of his victims in barrels.
People of good will can differ on important issues surrounding the death penalty. But peddling misinformation about death penalty decisions or equating a justice’s qualifications to serve with an unwavering support for every death sentence raise serious questions whether the politicians want a fair discussion of the issues.
Clearly, the relationship between the governor and his political allies and the court is souring. The politicians passed and signed a law stripping the court of administrative powers over lower courts and another law threatening funding for the entire court system. They supported a bill allowing the Legislature to impeach justices based on court decisions they do not like. They propose a constitutional amendment allowing the governor to pick the court’s justices.
The current tension is owing in large part to a series of court decisions about funding K-12 public schools.
The politicians are strategically using the court’s death penalty case to upset the public. They see too much political value in waving around photos of scary criminals. Focusing the public on the gruesome details of the crimes. Speaking misconceptions about what the court has done. And saying the court won’t enforce the death penalty when that’s not true.
Kansans must oppose this power grab.
At risk are checks and balances essential to a separation of powers, and fair and impartial courts based on the rule of law and the Constitution.
F. James Robinson Jr. is a Wichita attorney.