Finalists for Kansas Supreme Court all women for 1st time
photo by: AP File Photo
Story updated at 3:20 p.m. Wednesday
TOPEKA (AP) — Gov. Laura Kelly is set to fill a vacancy on the Kansas Supreme Court from the first all-female group of finalists in state history, though the state’s most influential anti-abortion group is publicly opposing one of the candidates.
The Democratic governor has until Dec. 5 to choose one of the three finalists named by the state’s nominating commission earlier this week. They are state Court of Appeals Judge Melissa Taylor Standridge, Washington County District Judge Kim Cudney and Kristen Wheeler, a Wichita attorney who is a clerk for a federal judge.
It will be Kelly’s third appointment to the seven-member court in less than two years in office, and under the state constitution, her choice is not subject to review by the Republican-controlled Legislature — a sore point for many lawmakers, particularly conservatives. Governors have had to win Senate confirmation since 2013 for their nominees to the state’s second-highest court, the Court of Appeals.
The anti-abortion group Kansans for Life is opposing Standridge because she sided in a 2016 ruling with other judges who said the state constitution protects abortion rights. The appeals court split 7-7 on the case, and the Kansas Supreme Court ruled last year that access to abortion is a “fundamental” right under the state’s Bill of Rights.
But Mikel Stout, a retired Wichita attorney and chairman of the nominating commission, said he wasn’t aware of the group’s opposition to Standridge. He said the commission’s focus was finding the three most-qualified finalists among the 11 applicants seeking to replace retired Justice Carol Beier.
“We want people who are smart. We want people who are responsible. We want people who are trustworthy. We want people who can write well, and we want people who we have confidence have the integrity to handle an important position like this and stand up and be counted when it’s necessary,” Stout said in an interview Wednesday.
With the latest appointment, the Kansas Supreme Court will continue to have three female justices. Chief Justice Marla Luckert, who rose to that position late last year, is the second woman to lead the court, after the late Chief Justice Kay McFarland, who led it from 1995 until 2009.
“The number of women working as attorneys and serving as judges has steadily grown since the beginning of my own legal career, yet it was history-making when the nominating commission advanced the names of these three well-qualified, accomplished women to be considered to serve on our state’s highest court,” Luckert said in a statement Wednesday.
Standridge declined to respond to Kansans for Life’s criticism of her as “pro-abortion.” She has served on the Court of Appeals since 2008 and was an appointee of then-Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, and Stout said she’s had a distinguished record on the appeals court.
Justices stand for an up or down vote every six years to determine whether they stay on the court, and Kansans for Life opposed Beier, another Sebelius appointee, because of her position in abortion cases. The group also opposed Kelly’s first appointee last year, Justice Evelyn Wilson. Like Sebelius, Kelly is a strong supporter of abortion rights.
Cudney has served as the chief judge since 2006 in a six-county north-central Kansas judicial district that borders Nebraska, overseeing six magistrates. Stout cited that experience as making her qualified for the state’s highest court.
Stout touted Wheeler as a well-regarded Wichita lawyer who’s practiced there since 2006. She’s currently serving as a law clerk for Senior U.S. District Judge Thomas Marten, and her father is the chief judge for Chase and Lyon counties in eastern Kansas.