Kansas House rejects change in selecting high court justices

The House of Representatives chamber of the Kansas Statehouse is pictured July 23, 2014 in Topeka.

? The Kansas House on Thursday formally rejected a proposed constitutional amendment to change the way state Supreme Court justices are chosen, and already some political organizations are preparing to make it a campaign issue in the upcoming primary and general elections.

Most notably, groups that oppose abortion said they plan to make it an issue.

“We warned them ahead of time that endorsements would be based on this vote. That’s what we said and that’s what we’ll be doing,” said Mary Kay Culp, state executive director of Kansans for Life, the state’s leading anti-abortion group.

A resolution that would have put the proposed amendment on the November ballot needed a two-thirds majority, or 84 votes, to pass the House. It failed on a 68-54 vote, 16 short of the required number.

If approved, it would have done away with the current “merit” selection process, in which a nonpartisan nominating commission screens applicants and sends the names of three candidates to the governor, and replaced that system with one modeled after the federal system in which the governor makes the appointment directly, subject to Senate confirmation.

Culp said she spoke in a radio interview on the Bott Radio Network, a Christian broadcasting group that has 18 affiliates throughout Kansas, urging lawmakers to pass the measure.

Republican lawmakers in particular seemed to be aware of KFL’s position as they stood to give explanations of their votes.

“Regardless of what the governor wants, I cannot in good conscience vote in favor of the federal model of judicial selection that has given us justices that have imposed and repeatedly upheld Roe v. Wade and now gay marriage,” said Rep. Don Schroeder, R-Hesston. “Both of these rulings are morally lacking.”

Reps. Don Hineman, R-Dighton, and Russell Jennings, R-Lakin, gave a joint explanation that was read into the record.

“As a defender of the unborn and a solid pro-life voter, I reject the notion advanced by some that this proposal is about protecting the unborn,” they said. “It is not. My vote today is for separation of powers of government and preservation of a fair, impartial and independent judiciary.”

Kansans for Life was not the only organization watching the House vote.

Mike O’Neal, president and CEO of the Kansas Chamber, said his organization also supports changing the way justices are selected. And he said alerts were sent out before the House vote notifying members that the Chamber considered it a “key vote,” meaning it would be used as one of several votes to grade how closely each House member supports the Chamber’s legislative position.

But O’Neal said the resolution that was defeated Thursday wasn’t necessarily the Chamber’s most preferred option. Also in the pipeline is another resolution calling for keeping the present system, but changing the makeup of the nominating commission so that attorneys would no longer have a built-in majority.