Lawmakers not done with court debate
TOPEKA (AP) — Kansas legislators aren't done considering possible changes in how the state's top judges are selected following the Senate's confirmation of Gov. Sam Brownback's chief counsel to the Court of Appeals this week under a new selection process.
Key legislative committee chairmen and the Kansas Bar Association's president said Thursday they expect lawmakers to consider judicial selection proposals after convening their next annual session in January. Much of the debate about Brownback's selection of Caleb Stegall to the Court of Appeals centered on the process leading to Stegall's nomination under a law that took effect in July.
Under the new law, the governor appoints Court of Appeals judges, subject to Senate confirmation, but the previous system is still in place for Kansas Supreme Court vacancies. Under the older system, a judicial nominating commission led by lawyers screens applicants and names three finalists, with no role for lawmakers after the governor's appointment.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Jeff King, an Independence Republican, said he'll pursue proposals to have a single system for both appellate courts.
"There's enough interest among legislators in discussing these issues that there will be a discussion," added House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lance Kinzer, an Olathe Republican.
Brownback and fellow conservative Republicans pushed earlier this year for changing the selection process for both the Court of Appeals and Supreme Court.
State law describes how members of the lower court will be picked, but the process for the Supreme Court is spelled out in the state constitution.
A constitutional change must be approved by two-thirds majorities in both chambers and approved by a simple majority of voters in a statewide election. That prevented a change in how Supreme Court justices are selected, even as the system for the Court of Appeals was altered.
"It's not a good situation to have one system for the Court of Appeals and a separate system for the Supreme Court," said Dennis Depew, a Neodesha attorney and the Kansas Bar Association's president. "The issue is going to return in the 2014 legislative session."
Supporters of the old process in place for the Supreme Court argue that it minimizes the politics involved in selecting judges. Critics like Brownback argue that the process is too dominated by a small group of attorneys and not accountable enough to the public.
The nominating commission releases the names of all candidates for each vacancy and holds public interviews, but its deliberations on potential finalists are closed.
Brownback refused to release the names of all candidates for the Court of Appeals seat to be held by Stegall, but the Senate released more than 300 pages of documents Stegall submitted. Senators debated his appointment in public during a two-day special legislative session this week to fix a criminal sentencing law.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, said he'll pursue legislation to force the governor to release the names of all Court of Appeals candidates.
But King said he'd like a single system for both appellate courts that perhaps preserves the nominating commission but includes Senate confirmation.
Next year, he said, "There certainly will be a discussion of the judiciary."
In May, Kinzer outlined proposals to split the 14-member Court of Appeals into two courts — one handling criminal cases and the other, civil cases — while reducing the number of cases handled by the Supreme Court. He said he's interested in starting a debate over whether restructuring the state's top courts would make them more efficient.
Kinzer also said many of his colleagues are interested in tougher limits on how long judges can serve. He outlined a proposal to drop the mandatory retirement age for the appellate courts to 65 from 75.