Topeka — A proposal to give the governor and legislators more power over appointments to Kansas’ appellate courts cleared the state Senate on Wednesday, demonstrating the increased clout of conservative Republicans.
The vote was 28-12 on a proposed amendment to the Kansas Constitution, one vote more than the two-thirds majority needed for passage. The measure goes next to the House, but it’s not clear that backers can find enough votes to get the proposal on the ballot for the August 2014 primary election.
Under the measure, the governor would appoint judges to the Kansas Court of Appeals and state Supreme Court, subject to Senate confirmation. The proposal would scrap an attorney-led commission that screens applicants and nominates three finalists for each vacancy. The current system requires the governor to appoint one of the nominees, with no role for legislators.
Conservative Republicans have pushed to overhaul the system for almost a decade, frustrated with state court decisions mandating increases in state spending on public schools. Also, abortion opponents view the state’s courts as too liberal, and conservative GOP Gov. Sam Brownback is advocating change.
But supporters insisted Wednesday that the proposal is not about remaking the appellate courts but opening up the selection process and giving Kansans more confidence in it.
“The current system does not have the legitimacy for the voters of the state of Kansas that it needs to,” said Senate Vice President Jeff King, an Independence Republican who also serves as the chamber’s Judiciary Committee chairman.
In previous years, Democrats and the Senate’s then-moderate Republican leaders blocked proposals for changing the judicial selection process. But in last year’s elections, conservatives ousted GOP moderates and emerged with 27 seats for an overall 32-8 Republican majority. All of the conservative members voted for the measure Wednesday and were joined by moderate GOP Sen. Jeff Longbine of Emporia.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, said the measure is an attempt by Brownback’s allies to master the judiciary now that they control the Legislature and the executive branch. He said the measure amounts to “putting politics back into the process.”
After appellate court judges are appointed, voters decide whether they stay on the bench — once every four years for the Court of Appeals and once every six years for the Supreme Court. Voters have never removed one.
“We have a good system that’s working well,” said Sen. David Haley, a Kansas City Democrat. “Why are we doing this?”
Opponents of the current system note that five of the nine members of the judicial nominating commission are attorneys elected by other attorneys, while the other four are appointed by the governor. They argue the system favors centrist or left-of-center candidates with strong ties to the establishment, particularly the Kansas Bar Association.
In the past, the system also has been criticized for favoring urban candidates over rural ones, providing too few finalists from western Kansas or advancing too few minority applicants.
“It’s absolutely undemocratic and a secretive process that needs to be changed,” said freshman Sen. Greg Smith, a conservative Overland Park Republican.
The Bar Association lobbied against “radical” change in a memo before Wednesday’s debate. The association has presented an alternative to expand the nominating commission so it would have 15 members, 11 appointed by the governor and legislative leaders.
Meanwhile, the House has its own proposal mirroring the Senate measure, except it would put the proposed amendment on the November 2014 general election ballot, when voter turnout would be higher.
Conservative Republicans also control the House; the GOP has an overall majority of 92-33, and supporters need 84 votes for a two-thirds majority. But most or all of the Democrats are expected to vote against the proposal, and at least a dozen House members are moderate Republicans. House GOP leaders said Wednesday that they haven’t counted votes.