Kobach asks for new hearing in local effort to summon grand jury to investigate his office
photo by: Thad Allton/The Topeka Capital-Journal via AP
Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach is asking a state appellate court for a new hearing to determine whether the Douglas County District Court should be required to summon a citizen-initiated grand jury to investigate allegations that his office has mishandled voter registration applications.
Kobach filed the petition Friday, which was the deadline to ask for a rehearing in the case.
Steven X. Davis, a Lawrence resident who is running as a Democrat for a seat in the Kansas House, had filed petitions in August 2017 calling for a grand jury to investigate general allegations that Kobach’s office had mismanaged the state’s voter registration system and had been “grossly neglectful with respect to their election duties.”
Kansas is one of only six states that allows citizen-initiated grand juries.
The Douglas County court had initially rejected the petitions, saying Davis did not spell out adequately specific charges that should be investigated.
But on June 8, a three-judge panel of the Kansas Court of Appeals reversed that decision, saying Kansas statutes only require “general” allegations which, if true, would warrant a criminal indictment.
The case was unusual in several respects, including the fact that there was no second party who would have standing to appeal the decision to the Kansas Supreme Court. The case was titled, “In the Matter of the Petition to Summon a Grand Jury Filed by Steven Davis,” and it involved only his appeal of a district court decision rejecting his petitions.
In his motions Friday, however, Kobach seeks permission to intervene in the case, and he asks the court to either modify its June 8 decision or conduct a new hearing, arguing that the appellate court misinterpreted the statute.
That statute states, in part: “The petition, upon its face, shall state the name, address and phone number of the person filing the petition, the subject matter of the prospective grand jury, a reasonably specific identification of areas to be inquired into and sufficient general allegations to warrant a finding that such inquiry may lead to information which, if true, would warrant a true bill of indictment.”
In his original petition, Davis called for a grand jury to investigate whether Kobach and others in the secretary of state’s office had engaged in:
• Destroying, obstructing, or failing to deliver online voter registration applications.
• Possessing falsely made or altered registration books.
• Preventing qualified electors from voting.
• And being grossly neglectful with respect to their election duties.
In his motions Friday, Kobach argues that the appellate court focused on the meaning of the word “general,” which it interpreted to mean, “lacking in details; not specific” and “not precise; vague.”
But he argues that the court also should have focused on the word “warrant,” meaning to “authorize or justify.” Taken together, he argues, “it becomes clear that the legislature required more than the bare-boned and unsubstantiated claims in a petition.”
Kobach also argues that Davis’ petitions were insufficient because they did not spell out specifically when the alleged offenses took place, or whether the statute of limitations on those offenses has already elapsed.
In a phone interview Monday, Davis said that if the grand jury is summoned, he would be the first witness to testify, and he would present all the information he has to support the allegations.
“At this point, it’s mostly rumors. I mean, it’s anecdotal,” he said. “When I talked to people, especially when I was circulating the petition, saying they’ve had issues filing their online voter registration. A friend of mine had it happen, which is part of why I was interested in investigating it.”
Kobach’s office has flatly denied there was any wrongdoing in the way it has handled registrations.
“The allegations concern a brief period in 2016 when the online registration systems were malfunctioning,” Bryan Caskey, director of elections in the secretary of state’s office, said in a June 8 statement when the court of appeals decision was released. “The election officials at the county and state level worked quickly to correct the malfunction and to allow the affected voters to cast their votes.”
Douglas County District Court officials have said the grand jury will be summoned only when they receive a “final mandate” from the Court of Appeals.
Under normal appellate procedure, that would occur 37 days after the initial decision, which would be Monday, July 16. It wasn’t immediately clear, however, whether that date could be pushed back if the court grants Kobach’s motions.