Kansas governor withdraws judge’s nomination for appeals court after outcry over tweets
photo by: Associated Press
Story updated at 8:07 p.m. Tuesday, March 19, 2019:
Topeka — Posts on a Kansas judge’s Twitter feed that included vulgar language and criticism of President Donald Trump prompted Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly to withdraw his nomination Tuesday for the state’s second-highest court and raised questions about her vetting process.
Labette County District Judge Jeffry Jack also faced questions about whether he should remain on the trial-court bench in southeast Kansas. The Senate’s top leader said the state’s judicial ethics commission should review his conduct, and Kansans for Life, a politically influential anti-abortion group, called on him to resign.
Jack maintained in a statement that his tweets expressed “anti-violence, anti-discrimination and anti-hypocrisy” views and non-partisan personal opinions that do not affect his work on the bench. He declined to comment on the calls for his resignation and a review of his conduct.
Kelly’s withdrawal of Jack’s nomination for the Kansas Court of Appeals came a day after key Republicans said he would not be confirmed by the GOP-dominated state Senate and four days after the governor announced the appointment. Kelly said she did not know about Jack’s tweets beforehand.
The judge’s Twitter page includes tweets and retweets from 2017 with foul language or acronyms, some expressing support for abortion rights and gun control. A September 2017 tweet referred to Trump as “Fruit Loops,” and another said, “I am so embarrassed that he is our President.” The last tweet on his feed was in October 2017.
“Who would ever think that a sitting judge would be participating in these kinds of communications?” Kelly told The Associated Press. “It never occurred to us.”
Senate President Susan Wagle, a Republican, said the state Commission on Judicial Qualifications should consider whether Jack violated a rule in the state’s code of conduct for judges requiring them to promote public confidence in their impartiality. Wagle said she is “absolutely” considering filing a complaint herself.
The commission can admonish judges that their conduct violated the ethics code and order them to stop. It can also recommend the Kansas Supreme Court consider harsher sanctions, such as a public censure, suspension or removal from the bench. Jack has not been sanctioned since becoming a judge in 2005.
“He uses inappropriate language. He has a political bias expressed on the issue of abortion and on guns,” Wagle told the AP.
The process of filling the appeals court vacancy is getting legally messier, too. The opening was created by the retirement of longtime Judge Patrick McAnany on the day Kelly took office in January.
Kelly said she will name a new nominee, but Wagle argued that the appointment now goes to the Kansas Supreme Court’s chief justice.
A 2013 law says the governor forfeits the appointment power if she fails to nominate someone within 60 days of a vacancy, which was March 15. However, the same law says the governor can pick another nominee if the Senate rejects one.
Attorney General Derek Schmidt, a Republican, advised them by letter that another nomination should be delayed until the legal question of who makes the appointment is resolved. Otherwise, he said, “a cloud will hang over the head of any new appointee.”
Jack’s nomination was doomed Monday when Wagle announced she would not support his confirmation. She and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Rick Wilborn, also a Republican, called on Jack to withdraw, and even the committee’s top Democrat said he would advise him to drop out.
Jack, who served in the Kansas House as a Republican, criticized Wagle for opposing his confirmation before he even had a hearing. He said his tweets were “nonpartisan” and added that Wagle was upset because he criticized people “in power” that she supports.
He also said he thought his tweets would be viewed only by his roughly 100 followers and did not understand they were accessible to the public.
“My mistake was in a lack of understanding of Twitter,” he said. “I am sorry to Governor Kelly that my ignorance of the mechanisms of Twitter caused her any embarrassment.”
Jack was appointed to the bench in Labette County in 2005 by then-Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius. He faces a yes-or-no vote in his judicial district every four years on whether he remains on the bench, and voters retained him in 2008, 2012 and 2016 by an average margin of nearly 70 percent.
He is now registered as an unaffiliated voter, and Kelly said his Twitter feed “doesn’t coincide with the conversations we had with Judge Jack.”
The withdrawal of Jack’s nomination was particularly embarrassing because Kelly took the extra step — not required by law — of appointing a panel of lawyers and non-lawyers to screen applications, interview candidates in public and name three finalists.
“I think her staff let her down,” Wilborn said. “I have grandchildren that could have found that in social media.”