An Olathe legislator has served notice that he once again will push for changes in the way Kansas fills vacancies in its highest courts.
Once again, we suggest this is a solution without a problem.
Rep. Lance Kinzer favors a plan in which Kansas Supreme Court justices and Court of Appeals judges would be appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate. Once confirmed they would remain in their posts for life without standing for retention every four years as currently required. This mirrors the federal system, he says, and in his opinion is far superior to the state’s current system in which a nine-member commission nominates three potential jurists for a court vacancy, from which the governor must appoint one.
Kinzer and his supporters say that system is flawed because the Supreme Court Nominating Commission is too dominated by attorneys (five members are attorneys chosen by other Kansas attorneys, and four are non-attorneys appointed by the governor).
The first reason not to pursue this issue is that there is no significant public concern over how these judges are selected and retained. There is no problem to solve.
Beyond that, it’s hard to understand how a measure that eliminates judicial retention votes is more democratic than the current system. While it’s true that retention votes aren’t usually a hot election topic, steps have been taken to allow voters to make more informed retention choices, and the retention requirement always has provided a way for voters to dismiss a judge who clearly has failed to act or perform his or her duties appropriately.
What Kinzer’s system would do, however, is to inject more politics into the appointment of judges. He criticizes the attorney-heavy nominating commission, but who has a better handle on nominees’ professional competence and conduct than the attorneys who work with them every day?
Doing away with the nominating commission would open the door to judicial appointees who may not even be qualified to serve, but perhaps have a political bent favored by the governor and/or the Senate. If the governor and the majority of the Senate don’t share the same party affiliation, it sets the stage for needless political battles. If the Senate majority and governor are of the same party, it would be easy for them to use appointments to pursue a political agenda on the courts. Either way, the quality and professionalism of the courts could be compromised.
If the state’s highest courts were riddled with incompetent or dishonest judges, the state should be looking for ways to address that problem. That isn’t the case. Given the dismal economic issues that will face them in 2010, Kansas lawmakers have far better ways to spend their time.