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Trio of Kansas Supreme Court justices up for retention defend independent judiciary

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Each affirms judiciary supports functioning democracy by adhering to rule of law

OVERLAND PARK — Kansas Supreme Court Justice Melissa Taylor Standridge said the legislative and executive branches of government were distinct from the judicial branch because judges and justices were required to cast aside personal politics when making decisions.

“We are very different,” she told an audience Thursday night. “The first two branches of government cater to the people. Who do we cater to? The rule of law. Our own personal beliefs don’t matter. You can say that’s why we wear black robes because we leave everything behind. We have to make unpopular decisions sometimes.”

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Standridge was joined at Johnson County Community College by Chief Justice Marla Luckert and Justice Evelyn Wilson, all of whom will be on the Nov. 8 ballot to determine whether they retain their jobs.

Six of the state’s seven state Supreme Court members face retention votes in a politically charged atmosphere given the statewide vote in August rejecting an abortion amendment to the Kansas Constitution drafted in response to a 2019 decision by the state’s highest court. The decision said the constitution guaranteed people bodily autonomy and, therefore, a right to abortion.

Some Kansas political activists have advocated defeat of justices in anticipation replacements would be opposed to abortion rights.

“Unfortunately, in recent years, there’s been more of a tendency for some factions to want to look at whether decisions came out the way they wanted them to look,” Luckert said.

Wilson, Luckert and Standridge devoted half of  the “nonpartisan, educational” discussion to details of their educational, professional and legal backgrounds. Each justice touched on the value of an independent judiciary dedicated to fairness and impartiality in district court and appellate cases.

The forum also carved into three methods relied upon in Kansas to select justices or judges. It includes direct election and merit selection of district court judges, depending on jurisdiction. Spots on the Kansas Court of Appeals for nearly a decade have involved nominations by the governor followed by Kansas Senate confirmation. Supreme Court openings are filled through a merit-based evaluation of applicants by a nine-member commission with the final selection made by the governor.

The Supreme Court selection process in Kansas is distinct from the federal model in which the U.S. president nominates a person to the U.S. Supreme Court subject to confirmation by the U.S. Senate. Some Kansas politicians want to amend the Kansas Constitution to give the Kansas Senate veto power over a governor’s picks for the Supreme Court.

Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly appointed Wilson and Standridge in 2020 to the state Supreme Court, while Republican Gov. Bill Graves appointed Luckert in 2002. Wilson and Luckert both served as district court judges in Shawnee County ahead of their appointments to the high court. Standridge served on the Kansas Court of Appeals for 13 years, writing more than 1,000 opinions, prior to shifting to the state Supreme Court.

Luckert said the merit-selection system to fill vacancies on the state Supreme Court was the most democratic in terms of allowing anyone with basic qualifications to apply.

She also said Kansans benefit from stability in the judiciary. A revolving door of judges and justices would inject turmoil into many facets of life, she said.

“People make life-and-death decisions based on the things we decide,” Luckert said. “Continuity of decision making and precedent is important to all kinds of aspects of the way our economy functions and the way our society functions.”

No state Supreme Court justice has been shown the door by voters in more than 60 years.

Much of the fervor in 2022 has centered on the state court’s decision three years ago that affirmed the Kansas Constitution guaranteed women bodily autonomy and access to abortion services. Kansas legislators and lobbyists who objected to the decision crafted the constitutional amendment to effectively nullify the court’s perspective on abortion rights, which took on greater significance after the U.S. Supreme Court reversed Roe v. Wade that provided a national right to abortion for 50 years.

Kansans swarmed the polls in August to take part in the vote on the abortion amendment. It was rejected by a margin exceeding 170,000 votes.

In the past, capital punishment and school funding inspired organizations to seek ouster of Supreme Court justices.

Former Justice Carol Beier, who is part of Keep Kansas Courts Impartial, said voters in November should retain all six sitting justices whether appointed by a Republican or Democratic governor. Former Gov. Sam Brownback, speaking in August to the Wichita-based Culture Shield Network, said the vote was an opportunity to move the system toward appointment of more justices opposed to abortion.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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