It appears that at least us folks who hang out at the Statehouse—and possibly the rest of voting-age Kansans—may get dragged through the debate over who gets the final say on who gets to sit on the Kansas Supreme Court.
There are seven pretty good jobs on the high court, paying $145,600 a year (a dab more for the Chief Justice) and which include reserved indoor parking, so if they have automatic garage door openers at home, they don’t have to wear a coat to drive to work. Nice.
But choosing who gets those nice jobs is now pretty much the decision of the governor, who picks from three candidates who have been screened for qualification, or maybe weight, by the nine-member Supreme Court Nominating Commission. That commission is headed by a Kansas lawyer, and the roughly 10,000 Kansas-licensed lawyers elect one member from each congressional district to sit on the commission. The governor appoints four members, one from each congressional district, who may or may not be lawyers but generally have some free time.
Once the governor looks through the list of nominees, she/he names a winner, and the person is on the court.
Well, that’s not the way some folks look at it. They figure that lawyers choose lawyers for the majority of the commission, and those lawyers choose the nominees who will be recommended to the governor. Sort of an insiders’ deal among lawyers, they say.
Conservatives, generally, want something between that governor’s choice and the black robe, and want the Senate to have to confirm the governor’s choice—essentially veto power over an appointment they don’t like or feel may turn the court in a direction they don’t like, or maybe just a slap at lawyers winnowing the field for the court.
Some other folks figure that having a lot of lawyers on the Supreme Court Nominating Commission means that they’d probably nominate folks who have a pretty good background in the law so the governor can choose from journeymen, not apprentices.
The Special Committee on Judiciary last week suggested that the 2020 Legislature consider changing the state constitution as it deals with filling Supreme Court vacancies—getting rid of that nominating commission and letting the governor nominate a candidate who needs approval by the Senate.
The issue splits relatively oddly, even for the Kansas Legislature. Conservative Republicans don’t like Democrat Gov. Laura Kelly naming the next two members of the Supreme Court. Justice Lee Johnson and Chief Justice Lawton Nuss are retiring this year, and Kelly will get to name their replacements without Senate confirmation. That much is locked up…she’ll make her appointments before a constitutional amendment could be considered by Kansas voters.
But a constitutional amendment to give the Senate the final say and eliminate the Supreme Court Nominating Commission? That might—if approved in the Legislature by a two-thirds vote and a simple majority of Kansas voters—give the Senate the power to derail future nominations.
It puts all the power in the hands of 21 senators.
The result? Probably that lawmakers of a party different than that of the governor can blast the governor for making a bad choice, or at least a choice they don’t like. While governors for years have said they don’t specifically ask even in private meetings with the nominees just where they stand on, say, abortion or the death penalty or any number of controversial issues, don’t count on senators to even assert they won’t ask about issues, just general temperament.
Will one person make the decision about who gets to sit on the Supreme Court, or 21? And do a majority of voters care?