Proposed legislation that would vastly expand the legal grounds for impeaching judges in Kansas is nothing short of an attack on the balance of powers in state government.
SB 439 lists impeachable offenses in such a vague and inclusive way that state legislators would have almost unlimited power to oust Kansas Supreme Court justices who issue rulings with which they disagree and keep replacing justices until they get a court that suits their political agenda.
The impeachment measure scheduled to be considered today by the Senate Judiciary Committee is popular with legislators who are angry with the Kansas Supreme Court because of its rulings on school finance and other matters. One of the bill’s sponsors, Republican Sen. Mitch Holmes, said this week, “I believe the court has a tremendous problem with overreach.” Perhaps the senator doesn’t recognize that his bill represents legislative overreach that threatens the existence of an independent judiciary in the state of Kansas.
The Kansas Constitution provides for the removal of state officials from office if they are impeached and convicted of “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” The bill being considered lists treason, bribery and “indictable criminal offenses,” among its grounds for impeachment of members of the Kansas Supreme Court and appointed district judges, but that is just the beginning of the list. Also included are such arbitrary judgments as “exhibiting personal misbehavior or misconduct” or “exhibiting discourteous conduct toward litigants, jurors, witnesses, lawyers or others” in their official business. One basis for impeachment that has drawn particular attention is “attempting to usurp the power of the legislative or executive branch of government.”
As a reminder, the power to impeach and remove state officials from office lies entirely with the Legislature. According to the constitution, the House has “the sole power to impeach.” The Senate tries all impeachment cases and can remove someone from office with a two-thirds majority vote. However unlikely, it certainly would be possible for legislators to use the vague proposed impeachment standards to remove justices based on an arbitrary determination that they have been “discourteous” or engaged in “personal misbehavior.”
Is that what the Legislature has in mind? Sen. Dennis Pyle, another sponsor of the bill, noted this week that impeachment has been “a little-used tool” to challenge judicial rulings. “Maybe it needs to be oiled up a little bit or sharpened a little bit,” he said.
Allowing the Legislature to exert that kind of control over the state’s top court represents a total breakdown in the separation of powers that is at the heart of the democratic system. The state’s courts don’t pose their own challenges to the legislative and executive branches; they respond to the concerns raised by Kansas residents. It’s the courts’ duty to give those residents an avenue to challenge the decisions of the other two branches. If the Legislature is allowed to stack the Supreme Court with supportive justices, the power of the judiciary to provide a meaningful balance of power will be lost.
The Kansas Supreme Court is charged with interpreting the laws of Kansas. If legislators disagree with the court’s interpretation, they can change the laws, but they shouldn’t be allowed to punish or undermine the powers of the court for simply doing its job.