Tuesday’s narrow passage by the Kansas Senate should be the end of the road for damaging and probably unconstitutional legislation that would set broad new criteria for the impeachment of Kansas Supreme Court justices, the governor and other state-level elected officials.
The measure now goes to the House, which should decline to consider the legislation.
The sponsors of Senate Bill 439 claim that their intention is to clarify the checks and balances among the three branches of state government, but the bill, instead, is a transparent legislative power grab.
The Kansas Constitution allows state officials to be “removed from office by impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” What legislators are attempting to do — without amending the constitution — is to further “define” what qualifies as “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Among the more ridiculous offenses they say should be covered by that umbrella are “exhibiting discourteous conduct” in their professional dealings or “exhibiting personal misbehavior or misconduct.” The meat of this measure, however, lies in the addition of “attempting to usurp the power of the legislative or executive branch of government” as grounds for impeachment. That provision is a barely veiled warning to Supreme Court justices who have declared the state’s school finance system unconstitutional.
And who gets to decide whether justices or state officials are guilty of any of these crimes? Members of the Kansas Legislature. The House has “the sole power to impeach,” officials who then are tried by the Senate, which can remove them from office with a two-thirds majority vote.
The offenses so broadly defined in this legislation would allow legislators to remove any number of justices or state officials and replace them with people who shared the political agenda of the legislative majority. Sen. Mitch Holmes, R-St. John, has repeatedly contended that the independent courts in Kansas illustrate the principle that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” while ignorantly or willfully failing to acknowledge that the impeachment bill invites exactly that kind of corruption within the Legislature.
The Senate bill initially was directed at Supreme Court justices and appointed district judges. In an apparent effort to disguise their attack on the courts, legislators subsequently added state-level elected officials to the bill and dropped the district judges. But the real target of the legislation is clear: the Kansas Supreme Court. Unfortunately, the constitutional separation of powers that is basic to state government would be collateral damage.
Even if this bill is passed, it’s unlikely it would pass constitutional muster. With that in mind, the supporters of this bill probably were more interested in making a point than in making good law. For better or worse, they’ve made their point. It’s time to let this issue die.