A proposal for overhauling how Kansas fills vacancies on its appellate courts cleared a state Senate committee Thursday, and the full chamber expects to vote on it next week.
The measure, backed by many conservative Republicans, would amend the Kansas Constitution so that state Court of Appeals judges and Supreme Court justices would be appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate. The proposal would scrap the attorney-led judicial nominating commission that now screens applicants for the appellate courts and nominates three finalists for the governor, who must pick one. Legislators have no role.
The change advanced by the Senate committee is similar to one endorsed by the House Judiciary Committee. Both measures give the governor and legislators more power over appellate court appointments; supporters contend the current process is undemocratic because five of the judicial nominating commission’s members are attorneys elected by other attorneys.
Conservative Republicans have been frustrated for nearly a decade by court rulings ordering the state to increase its spending on public schools. Abortion opponents view the courts as too liberal on that issue and dislike the current selection system, and conservative GOP Gov. Sam Brownback is pushing for change.
Leaders of the Senate’s Republican supermajority said their measure will be debated Wednesday, with a final vote the next day.
“It’s a priority to fix a biased system,” said Senate President Susan Wagle, a conservative Wichita Republican.
Constitutional amendments must be adopted by two-thirds majorities in both chambers and by a simple majority of voters in a statewide election. The Senate committee proposed putting its measure on the ballot at the next scheduled statewide election, the August 2014 primary at the latest.
The House committee has proposed putting its measure on the ballot in the November 2014 general election, when voter turnout will be higher. House GOP leaders have not yet said when they plan to debate their measure.
In the Senate, David Haley of Kansas City, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said backers of his chamber’s proposal are rushing the debate and the statewide vote.
He and other backers of the current system argue that it has put well-qualified judges on the appellate courts for more than 50 years, while keeping politics largely out. The current process resulted from a constitutional amendment approved by voters in 1958.
Haley called the proposed change “a quantum leap.”
Senators also have a follow-up bill to create a new seven-member group to review each of the governor’s appointees to an appellate court and report on whether that person is qualified before the Senate has its confirmation vote.