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Archive for Monday, October 30, 2000

Judicial decisions made blindly

Should Kansas voters be more familiar with judges?

October 30, 2000

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Douglas County District Judges Michael Malone, Paula Martin and Jack Murphy are up for election next month kind of.

They have no opponent but themselves. With the way the system is set up, they never will.

The three face a retention vote, which gives voters a chance to choose whether to keep them in office even if the voters have never heard of the judges.

No one is publicly opposing the retention of the judges and most Kansas judges never lose a retention election. But a few have. Lyon County District Judge R.E. Miller was voted out of his position in a 1978 retention election. Three other magistrate judges have also been recalled.

But the way judges get and keep their jobs is the subject of a growing debate that has roots in northeast Kansas.

About half of Kansas counties choose their judges indirectly, with the governor appointing them from a list of nominees selected by a local committee. The other half chooses directly through elections.

The trend seems to be in favor of elections. Atchison, Leavenworth and Shawnee counties all have questions on the Nov. 7 ballot that would put judicial selection in the hands of the people.

Those efforts have drawn attention from political heavyweights across the state. Jill Docking, the Democratic U.S. Senate candidate in 1996, is spearheading a campaign to create a statewide system of judicial appointments.

On the other side is former Gov. Joan Finney, a Democrat who served from 1991 through 1995. She is battling to allow counties to choose their own course.

The judges are in the middle but leaning away from elections.

"It depends who you ask," said Ron Keefover, information officer for the Office of Judicial Administration in Topeka. "But I think a majority of judges think merit selection is the way to go."

The money problem

The problem, Keefover said, is that election campaigns cost money, which means aspiring judges must raise money.

And the people interested in contributing to campaigns, most likely lawyers, businesses and others with matters before the court, are all "hoping they'll get favorable rulings," he said.

That can create the appearance of impropriety.

"The idea that you go into the courtroom and you haven't contributed to a judge's campaign and the other fellow has ... ," Keefover said. "Would you feel comfortable with that?"

He said millions of dollars are spent on judicial campaigns in Texas.

"It's the best justice money can buy down there," Keefover said.

His comments were echoed by Docking. She and former Kansas GOP chairman Fred Logan announced this month the creation of Kansans for an Independent Judiciary, a group pushing for judicial appointments statewide.

"I do find it very worrisome that money could influence judicial elections," Docking said.

Along with Finney, Rita Cline a Democrat who serves as Shawnee County Treasurer testified Thursday before a legislative committee considering the issue.

Cline said it is preposterous to think that campaign money might influence judicial decisions.

"They're making tacky, degrading statements," she said. "They're saying judges are underhanded and can be bought. That's a criminal offense, if it happens."

Cline said she isn't worried that judges would become politicians, catering to the whims of voters.

"It's better to be beholden to the voters instead of a little select committee," she said.

But Docking disagreed. She lives in Sedgwick County, where judges are elected, and she once helped oppose a judge who she thought made a bad decision. Later, she found the judge had acted in accordance with the law.

"I don't want a judge's decisions dictated by emotions," Docking said. "Even if they're mine."

Douglas County District Judges Jean Shepherd and Robert Fairchild face retention votes in 2002.

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