Topeka Hearings on an ethics complaint against former Kansas Attorney General Phill Kline rehashed past incidents from the state’s abortion debates, and those incidents sometimes felt as distant as the mock battles staged by Civil War re-enactors.
This past is hardly so distant, of course. The complaint against Kline before a three-member panel of the state Board for the Discipline of Attorneys stems from actions by him and his subordinates when he was attorney general from 2003 to 2007 and Johnson County district attorney in 2007 and 2008.
But the state’s altered political context makes the history seem ancient. Kline is no longer in the anti-abortion vanguard, not even in Kansas, thanks to last year’s election of Gov. Sam Brownback, a fellow anti-abortion Republican.
Abortion providers and abortion rights advocates seem far less powerful politically, with a string of lopsided legislative losses on policy and new regulations for providers that briefly held the possibility of making Kansas the only state without an abortion clinic. The state is embroiled in legal disputes over policies enacted this year.
And Kline’s case?
“Here we are, again, for days on things that should have been disposed of long before this,” he told reporters during one break in the hearings.
About the case
The complaint, filed by the attorney disciplinary administrator, accuses Kline and his subordinates of mishandling abortion patients’ medical records and misleading other public officials to further their investigations of abortion providers. The panel wrapped up its hearings Friday and will recommend to the Kansas Supreme Court what sanctions, if any, Kline should face. The panel’s decision isn’t expected for at least several weeks.
Kline strongly disputes the allegations, describes the complaint as politically motivated and doesn’t trust the disciplinary process. The Supreme Court already has criticized him in past decisions in abortion cases, and four of its even justices were appointed by former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius.
The court could strip Kline of his license to practice law in Kansas, but it’s no longer active. He was voted out of both the attorney general’s and district attorney’s offices and is now a visiting assistant law professor at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., founded by evangelist Jerry Falwell.
Questions and allegations about Kline’s conduct go back to 2003 and his first months in office as attorney general, when he launched investigations of abortion providers, including a clinic operated by Planned Parenthood in the Kansas City suburb of Overland Park.
The abortion rights Democrats who succeeded Kline after he lost the attorney general’s job have themselves left office, and Sebelius became U.S. health and human services secretary in 2009.
Kline continued his investigation of the Planned Parenthood clinic as Johnson County district attorney and filed 107 criminal charges against it in October 2007. That case, delayed by legal disputes over patient records and Kline’s conduct, has a preliminary hearing set for Oct. 24-26 in Johnson County District Court to determine whether it will go to trial.
Even as Kline filed his charges in 2007, anti-abortion groups were pushing successfully, through petitions, to force Johnson County to convene a grand jury to investigate the Planned Parenthood clinic. The grand jury disbanded in 2008 without issuing any indictments, and its interactions with Kline and his staff were the focus of the last part of Kline’s ethics hearing.
The presiding grand juror, Stephanie Hensel, testified that Kline and his staff misled the group about what Kansas law required of Planned Parenthood when it came to reporting cases of possible sexual abuse of children — leading jurors to issue a subpoena for records. The grand jury retained its own attorneys, not wanting to rely exclusively on Kline and his staff for legal guidance.
Abortion opponents have made much of negotiations involving Hensel, the grand jury’s attorneys and Planned Parenthood over documents after the subpoena was issued but never enforced. The negotiators even contemplated a deal that would have restricted the district attorney’s office, though the severity of the limits was disputed.
But why do such details matter now?
They don’t answer the specific question of whether Kline and his staff misled the grand jury. The Planned Parenthood clinic still faces criminal prosecution, and if anti-abortion groups want other matters investigated, they can, under Kansas law, force Johnson County to convene another grand jury.
Yet Kline is defending his reputation as he defends his law license. Opponents have used his name as a code-phrase for political extremism on the right, and he took time during his testimony to counter their presumption that going after abortion providers was an obsession.