Douglas County court ordered to summon Kobach grand jury ‘without delay’

photo by: AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

In this Aug. 3, 2018 file photo, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach addresses supporters during a campaign stop in Pittsburg, Kan.

TOPEKA — The Kansas Court of Appeals on Tuesday ordered the Douglas County District Court to act “without delay” in summoning a grand jury to investigate allegations of election-related crimes in Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach’s office during the 2016 elections.

The order, officially known as a “mandate,” came seven days after the Kansas Supreme Court said it would not hear any appeals in the matter.

It wasn’t immediately clear Tuesday exactly how soon prospective jurors would be summoned or how the selection process would be conducted.

Chief Judge Peggy Kittel’s office and the district court clerk’s office did not immediately respond Tuesday to requests for information about how the process would move forward.

Under state law, the grand jury will have the option of requesting District Attorney Charles Branson’s office to participate, or it may request that a special counsel and outside investigators be hired to lead the investigation.

A spokeswoman for Branson’s office said in an email Tuesday that the office would participate only if asked to.

Once the grand jury is impaneled, state law requires that the first witness to testify must be the person who initiated the petition drive, who in this case would be Steven Davis, a Lawrence resident and unsuccessful candidate for the Kansas House in both the 2016 and 2018 elections.

Davis circulated petitions last year to summon a grand jury. Kansas is one of only a handful of states that allow citizen-initiated grand juries.

It was the second time Davis had circulated such petitions. His first attempt in 2016 was rejected by then-Chief Judge Robert Fairchild because it failed to state specific allegations of illegal conduct.

In 2017, though, Kansas lawmakers amended the statute to allow unsuccessful petitioners to appeal such decisions. After that change took effect, Davis circulated a second round of petitions, and after those were rejected by Judge Kittel, he appealed to the Kansas Court of Appeals, which ruled in his favor on June 8 of this year.

Kobach’s office asked the Kansas Supreme Court to review the decision, but the high court rejected that request on Aug. 31. Kobach then asked the court to reconsider that decision and the court rejected that request on Nov. 20.

Davis has alleged that Kobach’s office failed to properly register a number of voters in 2016 who applied for registration while renewing their driver’s licenses or filling out an online form through the Kansas Department of Revenue’s website.

Following the Court of Appeals’ June 8 decision, Kobach’s office issued a statement calling Davis’ allegations “patently false” and accusing Davis of using the petition process for political gain.

Bryan Caskey, director of elections in Kobach’s office, has said the allegations concern a brief period in 2016 when online registration systems were malfunctioning and that election officials at both the state and county levels had worked quickly to make sure the affected voters were able to cast their ballots.

Kansas first enacted a law allowing citizen-initiated grand juries in 1887. According to the Court of Appeals’ June 8 decision, it appeared to be in response to concerns that many local prosecutors were not doing enough to shut down illegal saloons.

The law was amended in 2013 to make it easier for citizens to petition for grand juries. Among those who supported that measure, according to legislative records, were Kobach himself, as well as the anti-abortion organization Kansans for Life.

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