Bench Memos

Kansas Update

Back in August, I wrote about the conservative takeover of the Kansas state senate, a positive development that significantly enhanced the prospects for reform in some important areas of public policy, including judicial selection. Kansas is one of 13 states that follow the lawyer-dominated Missouri Plan for selecting judges, and Governor Brownback and his conservative allies in the legislature have been working to change that. As if the governor needed more excuses to make the issue a priority, the state’s judicial nominating commission decided to kick sand in his eyes by sending him a disappointing slate of finalists for a Court of Appeals vacancy. The Kansas City Star has more:

Applying for the vacancy were two Brownback favorites: Caleb Stegall, the governor’s chief counsel and a former Jefferson County attorney, and Sedgwick County District Judge Tony Powell. Before taking his judgeship in 2003, Powell was a leading spokesman for anti-abortion Republicans in the Kansas House.

Conservative Republican legislators, activists and their political allies have complained for years that the commission is dominated by lawyers who tend to favor moderate and left-of-center attorneys with ties to the legal establishment…

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lance Kinzer, an Olathe Republican, said the announcement again confirms that the selection process makes it “virtually impossible” for prominent conservatives like Powell and Stegall to be appointed to the appellate courts.

Kinzer said the process “tends to exclude others who are equally qualified because they don’t fit the preferred political profile.”

Representative Kinzer, a leading light in the Kansas legislature, would like Kansas to adopt a modified version of the federal selection method, freeing the governor to appoint judges of his choice, subject to confirmation by the senate. Others seem to be urging a more dramatic move to direct election of all appellate judges. I have seen both methods work well, and either would be a significant improvement over the status quo, so I wish Governor Brownback, Representative Kinzer, and their allies the best of luck in the upcoming legislative session.

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