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Kan. House panel passes judicial selection change

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) -- A proposal favored by some conservative Republicans to give Kansas governors and lawmakers more power over appointments to the state's appellate courts cleared a legislative committee Wednesday.

The measure would amend the Kansas Constitution to allow governors to appoint whomever they choose to the state Court of Appeals and Supreme Court, subject to Senate confirmation. It would scrap the statewide, attorney-led commission that now screens applications and nominates three finalists for the governor, who makes the appointment without legislative review.

For almost a decade, some Republicans -- particularly conservatives -- have pushed for a change, frustrated with court decisions ordering the state to increase spending on its public schools. Many abortion opponents view the state courts as too liberal on that issue and dislike the current system, and conservative Republican Gov. Sam Brownback has urged lawmakers to change it.

The House Judiciary Committee's endorsement of the proposed change on a voice vote sent it to the full chamber for debate. It's not clear when the House will take it up, because committee Chairman Lance Kinzer, a conservative Olathe Republican, said he needs some time to build support for it among 49 new members of the chamber.

Supporters of the measure consider the current judicial selection system undemocratic because five of the nominating commission's nine members are attorneys elected by other attorneys, while the other four, all non-lawyers, are appointed by the governor. Kinzer said Senate confirmation of appellate court members will build public respect for them and their decisions.

"The voice of the people is heard by the elective representatives in the Legislature," said Rep. Jim Howell, a conservative Derby Republican. "The voice of the people comes forward."

Amending the state constitution requires approval by two-thirds majorities in both chambers and by a simple majority of voters in a statewide election. The judicial selection measure would go on the November 2014 general election ballot.

The Senate Judiciary Committee was expected to vote Thursday on its own version of the proposal, though this one specifies a public vote in the August 2014 primary. However, as an alternative to both the House and Senate proposals, some conservatives want to elect appellate court judges.

Critics of the current system contend it favors establishment attorneys and judges -- particularly if they have strong ties to the Kansas Bar Association -- and claim it tends to produce centrist and liberal nominees.

One of Brownback's appointees on the judicial nominating commission told lawmakers Tuesday that members showed disdain for conservative candidates in discussing two Court of Appeals vacancies last year.

But other past and present commission members said its deliberations focus on each candidate's experience, not politics.

Backers of the current system -- itself the product of a constitutional change approved by voters in 1958 -- say it has provided the state well-qualified judges.

Freshman Rep. Steven Becker, a moderate Buhler Republican and retired Reno County district judge, said he wants to preserve the ability of judges to make rulings that are correct under the law but politically unpopular.

"There should not be democracy in the selection of judges," Becker said. "The more democracy in the judiciary, the less independence of the judges."

Republicans have a 92-33 majority in the House, and most of the GOP members are conservatives, but it's not clear they have the 84 votes necessary for a two-thirds majority. At least some GOP moderates are likely join most or all Democrats in opposing the measure.

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The proposal endorsed by the House committee is HCR 5002. The Senate committee expects to consider SCR 1601.

Online:

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

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