Kansas House approves Court of Appeals change
By JOHN HANNA
AP Political Writer
TOPEKA -- The governor and lawmakers would have more power over state Court of Appeals appointments under a measure approved Friday by the Kansas House, and supporters hoped the move would help them enact even more sweeping changes.
The House voted 73-50 in favor of a bill providing for Court of Appeals judges to be appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate, eliminating an attorney-led nominating commission from the selection process. The commission currently screens applicants for the court and nominates three finalists; the governor must pick one, without a role for legislators.
The bill goes next to the Senate, where it appears to have enough support to pass.
Supporters of the House's measure also would like to have Supreme Court justices appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate. They argue the change would make the selection process more open by lessening the influence of lawyers and the Kansas Bar Association.
But altering the Supreme Court process requires amending the state constitution, while the Court of Appeals process is detailed in state law. A constitutional change must be adopted by two-thirds majorities in both legislative chambers and approved by a simple majority of voters in a statewide election.
The Senate already has adopted a proposed constitutional amendment to alter the selection process for both appellate courts. But in the House, the necessary two-thirds majority is 84 of 125 votes -- meaning advocates for change are 11 votes short, assuming all the members who supported the bill Friday also support a change for the Supreme Court.
"My hope is that by taking this first step forward, it increases the likelihood that we can get to a final resolution on both courts," said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lance Kinzer, a conservative Olathe Republican.
Five of the judicial nominating commission's nine members are attorneys elected by other attorneys. Critics argue the selection process has favored centrist or left-of-center candidates with strong ties to the legal establishment, particularly the Bar Association.
Conservative Republicans, who have been upset in recent years by Supreme Court decisions compelling lawmakers to increase spending on public schools, have been the strongest advocates for change in the Legislature.
Abortion opponents have viewed the state's court system as generally too liberal on that issue, and Gov. Sam Brownback, a GOP conservative, said in this year's State of the State address that the current selection process fails "the democracy test."
The current system itself results from a constitutional amendment in 1958 ending the election of Supreme Court justices, approved by 60 percent of the voters that year. Advocates of the current system contend it has greatly lessened the politics involved in selecting appellate judges and see proposed changes as a threat to the court system's independence.
"Kansans can take pride in their judiciary," said freshman Rep. Steven Becker, a moderate Buhler Republican and retired district court judge who opposed the bill. "The judiciary should be insulated from changes in the political climate."
But there have been at least occasional complaints about the selection process for more than two decades. Critics previously have argued there weren't enough appellate court finalists from western Kansas or other rural areas, or that too few minority candidates advanced.
"It's really important in terms of having a judiciary whose opinions are respected and engendering respect for the rule of law that there's a sense of democratic legitimacy," Kinzer said.
The judicial selection bill is HB 2019. The Senate's proposed constitutional change is SCR 1601.
Kansas Legislature: http://www.kslegislature.org
Text of HB 2019 and the House's vote: http://bit.ly/Z2wlCB
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