Judicial influence

A state chamber of commerce plan to evaluate Kansas judges looks too much like an effort to apply political pressure to judges who aren't deemed "business friendly."

More information usually is a good thing, but the efforts by the Kansas Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCCI) to gather information about the state’s top judges is raising concerns among those who want to preserve the integrity of our independent judiciary.

KCCI representatives visited the Journal-World Tuesday to explain an evaluation they have commissioned of members of the Kansas Supreme Court. A similar evaluation of judges on the Kansas Court of Appeals also is planned. The evaluation is being conducted by a Washington, D.C.-based research institute called the “Judicial Evaluation Institute for Economic Issues.”

A representative of the institute, Neil Coughlan accompanied the visitors Tuesday and explained that his group was a nonprofit entity that was providing its evaluation to the KCCI free of charge. Asked how the Judicial Evaluation Institute was funded, he would say only that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce “might be a major donor.”

The Institute does, however, bring with it a viewpoint, Coughlan said, that civil litigation is “out of hand” in America as a result of “judge-made law.” Supposedly putting that viewpoint and any influence wielded by its unnamed funders aside, Coughlan claimed that by examining cases decided by the Kansas appellate courts for the last 5-10 years, the out-of-state group would provide a “strictly objective, non-partisan evaluation” of which Kansas judges “tend to be liability expanders or civil liability restrainers.”

The idea is that those who are expanding liability wouldn’t contribute to the goal KCCI president Lew Ebert stated for his organization of “making Kansas the best state in the country to do business.”

Ebert said KCCI’s purpose in sponsoring the evaluation wasn’t to get involved with “hot-button issues” like capital punishment and school finance but to have a seat at the table when it came to judicial appointments as well as judicial retention elections. “We’re just adding information to the debate,” he said.

Despite KCCI efforts to portray the judicial evaluation simply as a public service, there are many questions about the information and how it will be used. First, should the state place much confidence in an evaluation conducted by an institute that approaches its work with a stated viewpoint about the judicial system? Will the KCCI use this possibly biased evaluation against judges who face retention elections, perhaps even encouraging pro-business interests to pour large sums of money into campaigns to remove judges who aren’t deemed “business friendly”? What about appeals court candidates who aren’t currently on the bench? Will they have a natural advantage over those who have a judicial record for the KCCI to “evaluate”?

The role of judges and courts is not to be business friendly or unfriendly; it is to interpret and enforce laws made by elected legislators not make new laws based on current politics or their own viewpoints. If the KCCI is unhappy with either the laws or the courts’ interpretation of those laws, the group should take that up with the legislators, not try to apply political pressure on the courts.

Ebert said Tuesday that Kansas needs “to have a great legal climate.” In the minds of many Kansans, a key component in such a climate would be smart, well-qualified judges who have been selected and retained because they fairly apply the laws of the state, not because they measure up to an arbitrary report card issued by the state chamber of commerce or any other special interest group.