Opinion Columns & Blogs

F. James Robinson Jr.: Oppose political tampering with our courts

A new national report and a separate survey highlight the sad fact that Kansas has become a national poster child for partisan and special-interest attacks on its impartial courts.

Together, they’re fair warning that we shouldn’t continue down the dangerous road some in the state have put us on.

The report is “Bankrolling the Bench” by Justice at Stake, the Brennan Center for Justice and the National Institute on Money in State Politics. This study looked at judicial races nationwide in 2013-14 and chose Kansas’ 2014 Supreme Court retention race as one of the worst examples of politicians exploiting these elections for political gain.

Last year, two Kansas Supreme Court justices were narrowly retained after an 11th-hour drive to dump them. The ouster campaign focused on a decision upholding life sentences for Jonathan and Reginald Carr and ordering new death penalty hearings.

But it didn’t stop there. As Election Day approached, the governor’s race looked like a dead heat. So Gov. Sam Brownback’s campaign consultants decided that attacking the Supreme Court was a way to get his supporters to vote.

They launched a disturbing TV ad that misleadingly said the Supreme Court had “let the Carr brothers off the hook.” Former Sedgwick County District Attorney Nola Foulston, who prosecuted the brothers, called it “beyond disgraceful” to use the case as TV ad fodder.

But it’s only a taste of what might come Kansas’ way next year. Not only are retention races getting more politicized, but crime themes are the most popular in judicial election advertising nationwide. Often this has meant ads with grainy footage and scary music, unfairly blasting a judge for letting some predator “go free.” Over the years, ads have accused Supreme Court justices in numerous states of coddling terrorists and rapists, of tolerating attacks on women and kids, and more.

And there’s plenty of concern that Kansas courts could be in the crosshairs in 2016. Why? Five of the Supreme Court’s seven justices and six of the Court of Appeals’ 14 judges will be on the ballot.

And the courts already face almost nonstop political assaults. Legal experts say some recent punitive legislative actions could strip our courts of funding. The 2016 election offers a big temptation for special interests and partisans who want to shape a court to their liking.

As for the national survey: Kansas’ reputation took another hit when the Defense Research Institute’s “Public Views of the Civil Courts” named recent events in the state as a basis for surveying “attitudes on the relationship between the courts and other branches of state government.”

But at least there’s a silver lining: The poll found a large majority of Americans oppose politicians’ calls to reduce court funding, strip courts of the power to rule on certain issues or remove judges, all because of unhappiness with a court decision. That opposition is bipartisan.

That should make us stop and think. In Kansas, our nonpartisan retention elections were approved by commonsense voters almost 60 years ago after a political scandal. They were intended to insulate our highest courts from political pressure. They can still work well.

But that will only happen if Kansans stand up and oppose politicizing the next retention election. Let’s make it clear to our elected officials that we won’t tolerate political tampering with our courts.

F. James Robinson Jr. is a Wichita attorney.