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Court of Appeals judge to receive Rehnquist Award

Monday, November 10, 2014   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Beth Warrington
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Judge Steve Leben

Judge Steve Leben, of the Kansas Court of Appeals, is heading to Washington, D.C., next week to receive the 2014 William H. Rehnquist Award for Judicial Excellence. He is the first Kansas judge to receive the award since it was established in 1996.


The award is named after William H. Rehnquist, chief justice of the United States from 1986 to 2005. The award will be presented to Leben by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. at a Nov. 20 ceremony at the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.


"It’s an honor to have been selected,” Leben said. "I appreciate the recognition for the work that I have been doing, along with several others, to help promote procedural fairness in America’s courts. It’s important that judges make sure that the people coming through our courts are listened to and leave their court experience feeling that they have been treated fairly.”


The award is given annually by the National Center for State Courts to honor a state court judge "who demonstrates the outstanding qualities of judicial excellence, including integrity, fairness, open-mindedness, knowledge of the law, professional ethics, creativity, sound judgment, intellectual courage, and decisiveness.”


In announcing his selection, the National Center for State Courts noted Leben’s groundbreaking work in procedural fairness, including his role as co-author of an American Judges Association white paper, "Procedural Fairness: A Key Ingredient in Public Satisfaction,” and co-founder of, a website devoted to procedural fairness in courts.


Over the past several years, Leben has made educational presentations to judges around the United States about how to improve perceptions of fairness by those who come through America’s courts. Last month, he made presentations to state judicial conferences in Maryland and Oregon.


"As a judge, I have a platform to do work that improves justice and the legal profession,” Leben said. "That motivates me to do what I do.”


Leben noted one challenge courts face is maintaining public trust. He said he believes the best way to meet that challenge is to recognize that when people come to court, they want to be listened to, to be understood, and to be respected.


"If judges do that, and explain their decisions in a way that anyone can understand, people leave the courtroom satisfied, even when they lose,” he said.


Leben was nominated for the award by Lawton Nuss, chief justice of the Kansas Supreme Court.


"Judge Leben consistently demonstrates the outstanding qualities of judicial excellence that the Rehnquist award recognizes and he has done that exceptionally well,” Nuss said. "I am honored to work with him and delighted to see him get the recognition he deserves.”


In his nomination, Nuss noted that beyond his national activities related to procedural fairness, Leben played an important role as chair of the Kansas Specialty Courts Commission, which looked at the status of specialty courts in Kansas in 2013 to determine whether statewide procedures and guidelines are needed. After receiving the commission’s initial assessment, the Supreme Court asked Leben to chair a follow-up Specialty Courts Standards Committee, which will develop those procedures and guidelines.


Nuss also noted the "Ethics for Good” program Leben co-founded to provide continuing legal education to lawyers on professional responsibility. The program is produced in Kansas City as a variety show that includes skits and topical commentary, and its popularity grows each year. Since its inception 15 years ago, it has raised more than $500,000 to donate to law-related charities.


In a letter of reference, Jordan Yochim, executive director of the Kansas Bar Association, mentioned the profound impact Leben has had on the Kansas legal community. He highlighted Leben’s work as co-chair of the committee that conducts a comprehensive survey of changes in Kansas law. The results are published in the Annual Survey of Kansas Law, which includes case law and statute and regulation updates for 30 different areas of law. It is the basis for continuing legal education offered to attorneys throughout the state.


"The credit for the continued success and impact of the annual survey rightly belongs to Judge Leben,” Yochim wrote.


Leben said he became a lawyer and then a judge because he wanted to be in public service. He was appointed to the Court of Appeals in 2007, after serving nearly 14 years as district judge in Johnson County. At the time of his appointment, he was serving as president of the American Judges Association.


Throughout his career, Leben has been dedicated to both expanding and generating scholarship on the development of law, procedure, and legal ethics. In addition to 16 published legal articles, Leben has served as editor of Court Review, a national journal for judges, since 1998. The National Center for State Courts previously recognized him for his national contributions to the administration of justice by giving him its Distinguished Service Award in 2003. The Kansas Bar Association gave him its outstanding Service Award in 2000 and named him the Outstanding Young Lawyer in Kansas in 1993.


Leben also serves as an adjunct professor and regularly teaches a course on statutory interpretation to law students at the University of Kansas law school. He is a past president of the Kansas City Chapter of the University of Kansas Alumni Association and past president of the Board of Governors of the KU law school.


Leben served for seven years on the KBA Board of Governors and for 13 years on the Journal Board of Editors, including three years as vice chair.

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