The issue of changing the way Kansas Supreme Court justices are selected again is being raised, along with a number of questionable arguments in favor of fixing a problem that doesn’t exist.
One of the most interesting recent arguments was made by state Rep. Lance Kinzer, R-Olathe, who reportedly told a Wichita newspaper that a system in which justices are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Kansas Senate would shield the selection process from pure politics and cronyism.
Kinzer, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, has been pushing for some time to change the current system in which the governor chooses a justice from among three nominees forwarded to him or her by a nine-member nominating commission. Although no one has demonstrated that there is a problem with that system, Kinzer and others favor a system similar to the process used to appoint U.S. Supreme Court justices.
However, the contention that such a system removes politics or cronyism from the process is nonsensical. In fact, it provides far greater opportunities for political maneuvering or paybacks than the state’s current system. Without a nominating commission, the governor would have free rein to pick a nominee from among his or her “cronies,” and if the governor’s party also had control of the Kansas Senate, in all likelihood, that person would be confirmed, whether or not he or she was qualified to serve.
In fact, the state’s current appointment process was put in place by constitutional amendment in 1958 by voters outraged by a blatant bit of political cronyism. In 1956, Gov. Fred Hall was defeated in the Republican primary, and the winner of that primary subsequently was defeated by Democrat George Docking. The chief justice at the time was Bill Smith, a big supporter of Hall. Smith was seriously ill and, rather than allow Docking to name his replacement, he teamed up with Hall and Lt. Gov. John McCuish to implement a maneuver that became known as the “triple play.”
On Dec. 31, 1956, Smith resigned. Three days later, Hall resigned. It then was up to the new governor, McCuish, to fill the vacancy left by Smith’s resignation — without any input from a nominating commission. He appointed Hall.
Kansans know politics and cronyism when they see it, and they approved the current judicial appointment system to get rid of it. The system is working; we shouldn’t take a step backward.