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Kan. Dem leader calls for early court nomination

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) -- The Kansas Senate's top Democrat called Friday for Republican Gov. Sam Brownback to name a new state Court of Appeals judge three weeks early to give lawmakers additional time to vet the nominee ahead of a special legislative session in September.

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley said he wants Brownback to nominate the judge by Aug. 9. The deadline set by state law is Aug. 29, and the special session is set to begin Sept. 3.

"The sooner, the better," said Hensley, a Topeka Democrat. "Three weeks would allow us to do some research on their background."

Brownback spokeswoman Eileen Hawley said the governor will select a new judge for the state's second-highest court "as quickly as he can."

But she added, "You can't create an artificial deadline because you have to go through due diligence and allow sufficient vetting and interviews."

Brownback called the special session for legislators to rewrite a law that allows judges to sentence some convicted murderers to serve at least 50 years in prison, following a U.S. Supreme Court decision in June raising questions about the statute's constitutionality. With lawmakers in session, the Senate is legally required to consider pending appointments, rather than waiting until the Legislature's next regular session starts in January.

Hensley has accused Brownback of scheduling the special session so that senators and others have only a few days after he names an appeals judge to examine the nominee's background. Brownback and fellow Republican leaders in the GOP-dominated Legislature have been adamant that they want the special session to last only a few days.

Hawley has called Hensley's allegation "ridiculous." Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Jeff King, an Independence Republican, promised the most thorough confirmation hearing "in recent memory" for the court appointee and said Hensley's suggestion that the nominee would escape scrutiny was "patently absurd."

Hensley sent a letter Friday to King, noting King's statements and asking him to push Brownback to make the court appointment by Aug. 9 if King is "actually sincere" about a thorough vetting. Hensley sent a copy to Brownback's office.

King said he's been careful not to inject himself into Brownback's selection of a nominee because the Senate Judiciary Committee will consider the appointment.

"When the statute sets a deadline, I'm not going to set one earlier," King said. "Whether we have five days or 25 days, we will thoroughly vet the nominee."

The Court of Appeals appointment is receiving unusual attention because it's the first under a law taking effect last month, having the governor appoint the judges subject to Senate confirmation. Under the old system, still in place for the Kansas Supreme Court, a nominating commission screened applicants and named three finalists, with no role for lawmakers after the governor's appointment.

The new process for the Court of Appeals is modeled on the system for selecting federal judges.

"However, I believe it is important to note that, under the federal model, judicial nominees are fully vetted over the course of several months before any confirmation votes take place," Hensley wrote in his letter.

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Online:

Brownback's office: https://governor.ks.gov/

Kansas Court of Appeals: http://bit.ly/13nYLxw

Kansas Legislature: http://www.kslegislature.org

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Follow John Hanna on Twitter at www.twitter.com/apjdhanna