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Special session will test leadership

Gov. Sam Brownback has called for a special session of the Kansas Legislature on Sept. 3. It will be the first since 1995. At issue is the so-called Hard 50 law, allowing judges to impose a 50-year prison sentence without parole or probation to those convicted of crimes deemed particularly heinous.

Ruling on a similar Virginia law, the U.S. Supreme Court decided juries, not judges should decide the sentences. Attorney General Derrick Schmidt wrote the governor to express concern the ruling might affect more than two dozen cases pending in Kansas. A special joint legislative committee has been formed, headed by Rep. Lance Kinzer, R-Olathe, to draft legislation fixing the "Hard 50" law and have it ready to move quickly. However, House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, and Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, might have their hands full, keeping a lid on restive colleagues' desires to raise other issues during special session.

The most pertinent me-too concern probably will be dismissed quickly because it is being raised by the badly outnumbered Democratic minority. Rep. Jim Ward and Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, both democrats from Wichita, want the Legislature to respond to another recent Supreme Court ruling.

In Arizona v. Inter Tribal Council, the court struck down an Arizona law requiring a birth certificate be shown when registering to vote. Plaintiffs challenged the law and won on behalf of voters who tried to register using a federal form created by the 1993 "Motor Voter" law, which requires no birth certificate.

Ward and Faust-Goudeau contend given this ruling, the special session would be a great time to scrap a similar Kansas law championed by Secretary of State Kris Kobach. However, Kobach counters the Kansas law was written with this in mind. Those who register using the federal form and no birth certificate can vote in federal elections (for president and Congress) but not state ones, creating a loophole that might save the Kansas law from unconstitutionality.

Others have their own agendas for the special session. Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, expressed concern it will allow Brownback to quickly nominate a judge for the Court of Appeals and speed approval through the Senate in a few days, with little scrutiny. However, Hensley's concern probably will be dismissed with little fanfare.

By far the bigger headache for leadership comes from Kansas Right to Life President Mark Gietzen, who seeks to reintroduce the "fetal heartbeat" bill. The bill in question would prohibit abortion once a fetal heartbeat has been detected, which probably would put the state before the U.S. Supreme Court to challenge the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling. Frustrated the bill did not pass before the Legislature adjourned this year, Gietzen sees the special session as a chance to finish the job.

Brownback, Merrick and Wagle are all anti-abortion. Yet, as leaders, their job is to keep the Legislature on task: To say to colleagues, "I agree with you on this, but the special session isn't the right time."

Can they do this effectively without losing their anti-abortion credibility? The special session will put their skills to the test.

Michael Smith is associate professor of political science at Emporia State University.