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AP: Kansas lawyers propose new way to pick judges

1/11/2013

TOPEKA (AP) — With lawmakers expected to take up the state's judicial selection system in the next few weeks, Kansas attorneys have put forward a proposal to reduce their influence in the judicial nomination process while keeping it from being turned over entirely to governors.

TOPEKA (AP) — With lawmakers expected to take up the state's judicial selection system in the next few weeks, Kansas attorneys have put forward a proposal to reduce their influence in the judicial nomination process while keeping it from being turned over entirely to governors.

The state's method for selecting judges for the Court of Appeals and Supreme Court involves a nine-member nominating commission consisting of five attorneys and four members appointed by the governor.

Critics contend the process is fundamentally undemocratic because it gives too much power to attorneys who aren't accountable to the public. An alternative being discussed in Topeka would let the governor appoint judges who would have to be confirmed by the state Senate, much like the process at the federal level, The Kansas City Star reported.

The Kansas Bar Association recently passed a resolution supporting the current system, "independent" of how the nominating panel is selected. The association endorsed a plan Tuesday that would expand the nominating commission to 15 members, with less than half of them being attorneys.

"Let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater," said bar association President Lee Smithyman, of Overland Park.

The nominating commission screens potential candidates for upper-level judgeships and submits three names to the governor for his or her consideration. Nominees for the state Supreme Court are chosen the same way, but that procedure is more difficult to change because it is set in the state constitution and would require a public vote and support of two-thirds of the Legislature.

Supporters of the current system said it protects the judicial branch from political gamesmanship. Efforts to change the system, they said, are driven by an ideological agenda and Brownback's desire to leave his imprint on the state.

Brownback has pushed for the federal model, which would let him select his own nominee to go before the Senate for confirmation. Abortion opponents favor that system because it would let the governor choose judges more sympathetic to his anti-abortion views.

Brownback, a Republican, is expected to push for the change this year, possibly with a constitutional amendment.

The bar association's proposal, called the "4-5-6" plan, would allow attorneys to choose four members of the nominating commission, one from each congressional district. The governor would appoint five members, and the Legislature would appoint six.

The plan would be applied to the panels that recommend appeals court and state Supreme Court judges and would be offered as a constitutional amendment.

"We believe (the plan) will eliminate any argument or criticism that attorneys have any control over this," Smithyman said.

Shawnee Republican Rep. John Rubin, one of the fiercest critics of the current system, has proposed an alternative plan.

He favors a nominating commission appointed by the governor, the House speaker and the Senate president. The governor would then choose a candidate who would go before the Senate for confirmation. Under Rubin's plan, a majority of the commission could not be lawyers.

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