The commission that screens applications for the Kansas Supreme Court and state Court of Appeals announced Friday that it is abandoning a longstanding practice of having private interviews with judicial candidates in hopes of boosting public confidence in the selection process.
The Supreme Court Nominating Commission's decision to open the interviews to the public comes after an unsuccessful attempt to remove four Supreme Court justices in this year's election and amid criticism that the selection process is too dominated by attorneys and lacks sufficient transparency.
With Court of Appeals Judge Nancy Caplinger's recent promotion to the state Supreme Court, the public will get quick look at the commission's new public interview process. Caplinger's potential successors are expected to be interviewed by the panel Feb. 17-18.
"The decision to open the interviews recognizes that a more transparent process of appellate judicial selection is important," commission Chairwoman Anne Burke, an Overland Park attorney, said in a statement.
The commission picks up to three finalists for each appellate court vacancy and submits their names to the governor, who makes the appointment. Voters decide every six years for Supreme Court justices and every four years for Court of Appeals judges whether an appointee stays on the bench.
There's no confirmation of appellate court appointees by the Kansas Senate and no role for legislators in the selection process. Kansas is one of 11 states with such a system. Arizona and Tennessee have a similar process but, unlike Kansas, they have legislators select some nominating commission members.
But Kansas is the only state in which attorneys chosen only by other attorneys make up a majority of the commission screening applications for the appellate courts. That's led some critics to describe Kansas' system as the least accessible to the public in the nation.
One critic, state House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lance Kinzer, said the commission's move doesn't solve the fundamental problem with the selection process. But Kinzer still welcomed the commission's action as a step toward openness.
"It certainly is a change in tone," Kinzer, an Olathe Republican, said in an interview. "In the past, when myself and others have raised concerns that the process is too insular, the response has been that the process is entirely appropriate."
Kansas voters amended the state constitution in 1958 to create the current selection process, switching from partisan elections. Since then, voters have not removed a Supreme Court justice or Court of Appeals judge, and until this year, judicial retention questions received little attention.
This year, the anti-abortion group Kansans for Life urged members this year to vote to oust four of the seven Supreme Court justices. It named its campaign "Fire Beier," after Justice Carol Beier, who'd written majority opinions in abortion cases that upset the group. The effort failed, but the justices were retained by smaller-than-normal margins.
Several other states also saw unusual activity in judicial contests. In Iowa, voters unseated three incumbent Supreme Court members after an aggressive campaign by gay marriage opponents upset with a unanimous 2009 ruling striking down that state's ban on same-sex marriages.
In Missouri, the Supreme Court declared interviews of appellate court candidates open to the public in September, though it has no vacancies. Kansas' selection process was modeled on Missouri's.
In Kansas, the Supreme Court Nominating Commission didn't even disclose the names of applicants for appellate court positions until 1981. That same year, local nominating commissions screening applicants for trial court vacancies began opening up their interviews with candidates.
"We believe the move toward open interviews will demonstrate the careful thought and consideration given by the commission to those whose names are forwarded to the governor for appointment," Burke said. "Kansans now can see for themselves how well the nonpartisan merit selection process works."