Topeka Voters in three counties will decide whether their district judges should be elected or appointed, continuing a debate on how to keep the judiciary independent but accountable to the people.
Questions about selecting judges are on the Nov. 7 ballot in Atchison, Leavenworth and Shawnee counties. In each, judges are appointed by the governor, and the proposal is to elect them.
The governor appoints Supreme Court justices and Court of Appeals judges because of a 1958 constitutional amendment. Judges also are appointed in nearly half the counties because of a 1972 amendment that allows voters to decide the selection method.
Supporters of appointing judges say it's crucial to keep politics out of the judicial branch. Critics contend elections make judges accountable to voters.
Fifty-three counties elect district judges, and 52 use a system by which judges are appointed.
Supporters call the appointment of judges "merit selection." Each judicial district has a nonpartisan commission of lawyers and non-lawyers that submits as many as three nominees to the governor, who selects the new judge.
Shawnee County judges have been appointed since voters approved the idea in 1974. Ten years later, 64 percent of the voters decided to keep it.
Ralph Hiett, who led the effort to gather signatures to put the issue on the ballot in Shawnee County, is hoping voters will prefer an elective system when they go to the polls.
"Judges should be accountable to the taxpayers and to the law," Hiett said. "I can't think of anything better than to regain our right to vote."
District Judge Terry Bullock and Chief Judge Marla Luckert said they would not have taken their jobs if they had been elected positions.
"The last thing you want is political connections in judicial decisions," Bullock said. "What you want is judges who are chosen because of their ability and their integrity."
The judges said there are plenty of measures to ensure accountability in the judicial system, including oversight from the state Commission on Judicial Qualifications.
They also noted that judges in the merit selection system face elections every four years to determine whether they will keep their jobs.
Hiett, a bail bondsman who unsuccessfully sued Shawnee County District Court over how the court issues bonds, said those elections aren't really elections because only the incumbent is on the ballot.
During the four decades the governor has appointed Supreme Court justices and Court of Appeals judges, none has been removed in an election. The lowest "yes" votes any single justice or judge has received is 67.2 percent.
However, Luckert said electing judges seldom offers voters a choice.
She cited a recent study of the Office of Judicial Administration that showed 91 percent of the state's district judges in counties where they are elected ran unopposed from 1978 through 1998.
Leavenworth County Atty. Frank Kohl and his part-time assistant, Tonganoxie attorney Mike Gibbens, led a petition drive to elect judges.
They have said politics plays a role in the selection process. They argue that judicial candidates lobby members of the nominating commissions.
John Tillotson, a member of the commission in the 1st Judicial District, issued a position paper opposing the election of judges.
He maintains the merit selection system currently used in the district ensures that political parties and special interest groups have little influence on the judicial system.