Do you believe Kansas courts should be fair and impartial?
So do we. This is how we do it…
In 2013, Gov. Sam Brownback set his sights on the courts, calling for changes to the way judges and justices are selected to give him more influence — so he could pack them with his supporters more loyal to a political ideology than to the constitution and the law. He successfully urged the legislature to replace a merit-based system for selecting judges to the Kansas Court of Appeals, the second highest court in the state, with a purely political model that gives the governor full control of the process. And he has called repeatedly for an amendment to the Kansas constitution that would do the same for the selection of justices to the Kansas Supreme Court.
When it comes to our court system, Kansans believe strongly that:
- Our courts should be fair and impartial.
- Courts should protect the constitutional rights of every Kansan.
- Politicians have no place in our courtrooms.
The good news? Kansas has one of the best systems in place for selecting justices to the Kansas Supreme Court based on merit – not political access. The Kansas Merit Selection system is considered the gold standard for selecting justices to the high court. The system is transparent and allows everyone to have a voice in the process.
It’s no wonder then that some politicians are threatened by it.
How did we get here?
Why we choose justices based on merit rather than politics
In 1956, Gov. Fred Hall found himself at the center of a notorious scandal known as the “Triple Play.” After losing his re-election bid, Hall schemed to have himself installed as chief justice on the Kansas Supreme Court. A few days before the end of his term, both Hall and the chief justice (a friend of Hall) resigned, and the lieutenant governor, sworn in as governor, quickly appointed Hall as the new chief justice. It was his only official act during the 11 days he served as governor. (At the time, justices were elected to the bench, but the governor could appoint justices to fill vacancies between elections.)
This brazen political episode disgusted the people of Kansas. They felt so strongly about keeping their court free of politics that they changed the state constitution to provide for the best possible way to select justices based upon merit — their qualifications, their legal ability and experience, and their ability to be fair to all Kansans. For nearly 60 years, this merit-based system has worked well under both Republican and Democratic administrations, ensuring fair and impartial courts insulated from partisan pressure — but the system is now under attack.
How does the merit system work?
In response to the “Triple Play,” Kansans voted to adopt the merit system for selecting justices to the Kansas Supreme Court. The constitutional amendment overwhelmingly passed in 1958 and has served Kansas well for nearly 60 years.
At the heart of the merit system is the Supreme Court Nominating Commission. The commission is made up of nine members — five attorney and four non-attorney members — who are responsible for recommending three qualified individuals to the governor for consideration and appointment to the supreme court. The governor interviews the three nominees and appoints one to the bench. The newly appointed justice stands for a retention vote on the first general election after being appointed to the court. Following this initial retention vote, justices stand for retention vote every six years.
Why is the Kansas Court of Appeals different?
The Kansas Court of Appeals is the second-highest court in the state, but was not included in the original constitutional amendment because the court was not permanently established until 1977. However, when the court was created, the legislature decided to use the merit system for the appointment of judges to appeals court because it worked well and was overwhelmingly supported by the people of Kansas.
The system worked well until 2013, when Brownback set his sights on the courts, attempting to remake them and pack them with his supporters, jeopardizing the fair and impartial balance that exists within the Kansas Court of Appeals.
Under Brownback’s political model, the public is completely cut out of the judicial selection process. Now, Brownback has full control over the selection process for the court of appeals and the public no longer has a direct role in selecting their judges or providing key oversight.
Merit vs. Brownback's Political Model