Judicial politics

Expanding the partisan election of district judges in Kansas is a move in the wrong direction.

July 2, 2008


It would be easy for a question about how judges are chosen to get overlooked amid the excitement of a presidential election, but a group of former judges and others are trying to make sure that doesn't happen in Johnson County.

On the Nov. 4 ballot, Johnson County voters will be asked to switch from the current merit-based selection of district judges to having those judges elected by partisan ballot. In Kansas, about half of the district judges are elected and the other half are appointed.

The merit-based appointment system requires a local nominating commission to screen nominees for an open judgeship and forward three names to the governor, who makes the appointment. After their appointment, judges face a retention vote every four years.

The proponents of the Johnson County change say partisan elections would make judges more accountable to the public. That may be true, but while judges are public servants, their job actually requires their first loyalty to be to the law, not to the constituents they serve. In fact, making judges more directly accountable to the voting public creates at least the appearance that a judge's decisions, which should be focused purely on the law, might be influenced by those who financially supported the judge's campaign.

In fact, that may be exactly what the proponents of the Johnson County measure have in mind. The effort to change the judge selection is being led by a group called Judicial Review of Johnson County. A judge retention questionnaire the group sent to Johnson County judges in 2006 asked eight questions: two about the definition of marriage in Kansas, two about taxes and one each about the state death penalty, the rights of the unborn, assisted suicide and the definition of pornography.

The topics imply a certain social agenda, but even if this group has no particular agenda, there is no doubt that switching to a partisan election system makes judges more vulnerable to the political influence of this or any other group. Even if judges are sworn to uphold the law, elections on some level also make those judges beholden to those who support their campaigns financially, which would be no small issue in Johnson County's expensive media market.

There have been examples across the country of large corporations with cases pending before a court committing thousands, if not millions, of dollars to trying to influence the outcome of a judicial election. Last year, a judge in Wichita came under scrutiny because of allegations that his actions in court might have been biased toward a law firm that had contributed to his campaign.

Those who favor the Johnson County change say their long-term mission is to "hold all judges throughout the state of Kansas accountable as elected officials." Judges already are held accountable through a retention system. That system also was beefed up in 2006 by the creation of the Commission on Judicial Performance, whose charge is to further that judicial accountability by collecting and distributing additional information about judges to Kansas voters.

There is simply no way to justify the view that partisan election would somehow make the selection of judges less political. Rather than moving to more partisan elections, the state should be passing legislation to make appointment and retention the standard system for all state courts.


Mike Blur 9 years, 11 months ago

Well, Satirical, that's what retention elections are for. All one needs to do is remember that particular decision when heading to the ballot box.Cato is correct. The selection/retention system is the best method we have now in selecting judges.

Uhlrick_Hetfield_III 9 years, 11 months ago

One of our fine KU law professors has done a study on this and said a pox on both their houses. Merit selection (particularly in Johnson County) isn't, and actually produces the worst quality of judges. Direct elections are also not very good for the reasons mentioned here. If memory serves the good professor embraces appointment with legislative oversight.Given the recent problem with judges in Leavenworth and Shawnee counties, it does seem that a more efficient way of showing the the door should be created so that when you get a fruitcake like Paula Martin on the bench you can get rid of her because retention elections don't cut it.

Satirical 9 years, 11 months ago

mike_blur...So by your logic we are simply forced to enduring an entire term of incompetent judges parolling child rapists?

a_flock_of_jayhawks 9 years, 11 months ago

Satirical (Anonymous) says:"mike_blur:So by your logic we are simply forced to enduring an entire term of incompetent judges parolling child rapists?"Just like we have to endure the entire term of the idiots in our legislature like Neufeld. I agree with Cato and others.

Brent Garner 9 years, 11 months ago

I do have reservations about electing judges via a popular vote. However, I also have a problem with governors handing out judgeships as rewards to their political supporters. So, tell me, which of these is the greater evil, or is there a better way?

Satirical 9 years, 11 months ago

For the sake of argument, there are some advantages to electing judges. There was a report just a day or two ago about a judge in Shawnee County who gave a man an extremely light sentence ( I think 3 years of probation) after sexually abusing 2 small children. In instances like those, I think public morals/ethics are important in deciding when a judge needs to go.

igby 9 years, 11 months ago

Why aren't these people in Lawrence asking these same questions?Why?Because they already have liberal and politically motivated judges on the bench here.

cato_the_elder 9 years, 11 months ago

While the merit system of judicial appointment as practiced in many Kansas judicial districts isn't flawless, it only occasionally results in the appointment of overt political supporters as district judges. In many cases, the appointing governor has never previously met or even heard of the nominee until the nominee's name emerges through the vetting process, and governors of one party have frequently appointed district court judges who are members of the other party. The Johnson County proposal is being pushed by people whose sole interest is in making the judicial selection process a partisan fight to elect fringe lawyers with radical views to the bench. If you live in Johnson County and are reading this, vote "NO," and tell everyone you know to do the same.

Orwell 9 years, 11 months ago

Restore:Why do you hate democracy? For whatever reason, good or bad, as in any election, a majority of voters chose to keep Judge Martin in office. Is it your position that whenever we disagree with a public vote, we need to change the process?Parkay:Why do you oppose an independent judiciary? One of these days, when enough people decide to restrict your rights, they'll elect judges that go along for fear of being voted out.The amount of lawyer money floating around in Johnson County is enormous. Do you really want justice to be meted out by whichever candidate received the most bribes: er, campaign contributions: for saturating the KC television market with campaign ads? Please.

Satirical 9 years, 11 months ago

The precentage of judges (even the really bad ones) who are voted out in a retention election is miniscule. Therefore retention elections are a not sufficient method of removing bad judges.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.