Legislation to change the way judges are appointed to the Kansas Court of Appeals apparently is on its way to becoming law in Kansas.
The bill eliminates the current process by which an appointed nominating committee reviews applications and recommends three nominees to the governor. Under the new process, the governor will have the exclusive right to appoint anyone he or she chooses, regardless of the nominee’s qualifications for the job, as long as that choice is confirmed by the Kansas Senate.
Critics of the current system were focused on the fact that a majority of the nominating committee were attorneys elected by fellow members of the Kansas Bar. The system, they said was too dominated by attorneys, too undemocratic. However, rather than adjust the membership of the nominating committee to address the specific problem, legislators have chosen to throw that system out and replace it with the appointment-confirmation system that injects new political influence into the system and could cause delays in filling vacant judgeships.
If Kansans want to see how the new system will work, they can look at an appointment process that currently is causing concern in Sedgwick County. The county usually elects its district judges, but because a district judge was appointed to the Court of Appeals, Gov. Brownback now is responsible for filling a vacancy. The traditional practice for filling such seats is to have representatives of the local bar take applications and recommend three nominees to the governor. The names of both the applicants and the three finalists are made public. However, Brownback decided not to follow that practice. Candidates for the judgeship were asked to file their applications directly with the governor’s office. After the March 1 deadline for applications, it was announced that 15 candidates had applied but that their names would not be made public. There apparently will be no transparency to the process leading to the governor’s selection.
This is the kind of closed process that likely will become common practice for appointments to the Kansas Court of Appeals.
The Appeals Court change apparently is a done deal. Because the selection of appeals judges is set out in statute, legislators can change it without a public vote. However, Kansans may have an opportunity to weigh in on a measure that would apply the same appointment system to the Kansas Supreme Court. Changing the Supreme Court appointment system would require a constitutional amendment, which already has passed the Kansas Senate. If it is approved by two-thirds of the Kansas House, it will go to the voters. Interestingly, the Senate bill sets the public vote on the amendment for August 2014, during a primary election that likely will draw only a small voter turnout. If the opponents of the current court selection system are looking to be more “democratic,” why wouldn’t they put the measure on a general election ballot when it would draw as many voters as possible?
The whole process on both of these proposals leaves the impression that the goal is not to make the selection of high court judges more democratic but to concentrate the power for making those choices with fewer people who may use those appointments for political paybacks or to pursue political agendas.