Push to remake Kansas Supreme Court hits backlash over governor

In this Sept. 30, 2016 file photo, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback speaks to reporters during a news conference, at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. (AP Photo/John Hanna, File)

? A push to remake the Kansas Supreme Court in the upcoming election could falter because of a political backlash against Republican Gov. Sam Brownback.

Five of the court’s seven justices are on statewide ballots that ask voters whether each justice should stay on the court for another six years. Four of those justices, each appointed by a Democratic or moderate Republican governor, are being aggressively targeted by GOP conservatives, abortion opponents and critics of rulings that overturned death sentences.

Brownback publicly supported a similar ouster campaign in 2014 that nearly removed the other two justices, amid anger over death penalty rulings. But the conservative Republican governor — who is facing voter discontent over the state’s budget problems — has refused to endorse this year’s effort, which is likely fine with one group pushing to remove the justices.

“He’s caused us a lot of headaches,” said Amy James, a spokeswoman for Kansans for Justice, a group of victims’ families angered by court rulings that overturned death sentences. “He’s actually a hurdle that we continue to have to overcome.”

Brownback can’t seek re-election because of term limits, but voters appear to be are taking out frustrations on his allies: 14 conservative GOP legislators lost their seats in the August primary, and Democrats hope to make significant gains on Nov. 8.

A group supporting the justices called Kansans for Fair Courts is running a television ad warning that removing the justices could leave the court with “Brownback clones,” because the governor could name replacements.

The groups criticizing the court are targeting Chief Justice Lawton Nuss, along with Justices Marla Luckert, Carol Beier and Dan Biles. Nuss and Luckert were appointed by moderate Republican Gov. Bill Graves, while Beier and Biles were appointed by Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius. The fifth justice on the ballot is Caleb Stegall, Brownback’s only appointee.

The justices said they decide cases based on laws, not their personal beliefs.

“The Kansas Supreme Court has done a very good job of deciding the important legal disputes brought to it in a fair and impartial manner,” Biles wrote in an email responding to election-related questions from The Associated Press.

Voters have never removed a justice since Kansas ended partisan elections for its highest court in 1960. In fact, past votes on the justices have received so little attention that state campaign finance laws don’t require any disclosures by groups supporting or opposing them.

According to the Center for Public Integrity, which is monitoring ads in more than 200 markets nationwide, Kansans for Justice had spent nearly $276,000 on broadcast television spots as of last week. Kansans for Fair Courts had spent almost $223,000.

The figures don’t include money spent by Kansans for Life, an anti-abortion group, to send mailers to thousands of households that tell voters they have “a rare chance” to replace “activist” judges before major rulings on abortion and school-funding cases. Another group it formed, Better Judges for Kansas, has dropped packets that include cards with advice on voting to give to family and friends.

But capital punishment rulings represent the ouster campaign’s most potent issue, particularly the court’s 2014 decisions overturning death sentences for Jonathan and Reginald Carr. The brothers were sentenced to die for sexually torturing, robbing and killing four people in Wichita in December 2000. James, the Kansans for Justice spokeswoman, was dating one of the victims when he was killed.

Among the voters siding with the groups is Carol Tull, a 60-year-old unemployed Wichita aircraft worker. She said the brothers “got what they deserved” in their death sentences and voted this year to oust the targeted justices. But contemplating their replacements, she said: “Brownback doesn’t need to be in on this.”

The governor has become a political liability this year because Kansas has struggled to balance its budget since Republican legislators slashed personal income taxes at Brownback’s urging in 2012 and 2013. The cuts were an effort to stimulate the economy, but even some Republican voters don’t think it worked as promised.

Kansans for Fair Courts calls the campaign to oust justices a “power grab” for Brownback, a description that resonates with some voters.

“That’s his way of trying to pack the court,” said Paul Dorsey, a 77-year-old businessman, retired teacher and self-described liberal from Lansing. “It ain’t going to happen. We’re going to block it.”

— Associated Press writer Roxana Hegeman in Wichita contributed to this report.