State legislators who claim there is a problem with the way Kansas selects its top judges are taking aim at the Kansas Court of Appeals.
Changing the selection process for members of the Kansas Supreme Court would require a constitutional amendment, but changing the process for the Court of Appeals can be accomplished by statute. A bill that’s up for final action in the Kansas House today would do just that.
House Bill 2101 would completely change the way judges are chosen for the Court of Appeals. Currently, nominations to fill vacancies on that court go through the Supreme Court Nominating Commission, which forwards three names to the governor, who makes the final selection. Under the new bill, the nominating commission no longer would be a part of the process; appointments would be made directly by the governor and confirmed by the Senate.
Those who are promoting changes in how state judges are appointed are selling the idea that the current process is unduly influenced by attorneys in the state. The nine-member board is made up of four non-attorneys appointed by the governor, four attorneys elected by attorneys in each of the state’s four congressional districts, and a chairman elected by a statewide vote of Kansas attorneys.
Members of the commission come from all parts of the state, and four of its members are appointed by the governor. Both the attorneys and non-attorneys on the commission likely represent a variety of political views. There is no evidence that the current system isn’t working.
Putting the court appointments solely in the hands of the governor and the Senate eliminates any citizen involvement in the selection of the judges and actually increases the likelihood that appointments will become more political. It would be much easier for a governor to use the appointments to repay a political debt, perhaps even appointing someone with only marginal qualifications to serve. Many well-qualified potential candidates might shy away from accepting a nomination because of the potential damage to their professional reputations if their appointment becomes a political football between the governor and members of the Senate.
The current merit selection process for both the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals has served Kansas well. It has ensured that the courts are filled with well-qualified members who represent a broad spectrum of the state and are as removed as possible from political influences.
The legislation to change the appointment process for the Court of Appeals probably would be a precursor to a push for a constitutional amendment that would do the same for the Kansas Supreme Court. It’s a change that wouldn’t benefit either court — or the people of Kansas.