Those who select Kansas justices
Friday, May 15, 2015
Posted by: Beth Warrington
There seems to be a misunderstanding in Kansas that members of the Kansas Bar Association select those who sit on our state’s Supreme Court Nominating Commission or nominate justices for the Supreme Court. The KBA is one of the oldest and largest voluntary professional associations in the state, but not an organization lawyers must belong to in order to practice law and not an organization involved in selecting judges.
The nominating commission consists of nine members, either elected or appointed. All licensed attorneys, whether KBA members or not, in each of Kansas’ four congressional districts elect four lawyers to serve on the commission, one from each district. In addition, the governor appoints four members, who need not be attorneys, one from each district. Finally, all licensed attorneys across the state elect the ninth member, who serves as chair of the commission.
The commission was created over 50 years ago, after the infamous "Triple Play,” involving Chief Justice Bill Smith, Gov. Fred Hall and Lt. Gov. John McCuish. Smith resigned in December 1956, followed by the resignation of Hall in January 1957. When McCuish was sworn in, his first and only action during his 11-day tenure as governor was to appoint Hall as chief justice of the Supreme Court. This was the catalyst that transformed the judicial appointment process into the merit-based system we use today.
All judicial candidate interviews conducted by the commission are open to the public. Anne Burke, current chair of the commission, said its members spend hundreds of hours reading background, criminal and credit checks, and letters of reference, making phone calls to persons in the candidate’s community, to lawyers and to other judges, just as a beginning. The commission also reads materials and legal writings, such as briefs and opinions, submitted by each candidate.
"As chair of the Supreme Court Nominating Commission for the last six years, I can attest that the candidates are Republican, Democrat and Independent,” Burke said. "They are men and women, religious and nonreligious, rural and urban.”
She said these candidates are typically "true students of the law, well-regarded by the legal profession and judiciary, of even temperament, well-spoken, bright and critical thinkers.”
"Attorneys, and I believe the citizens of Kansas, want Supreme Court justices who are as highly qualified as possible,” said Jerry Green, KBA president.
Green said that the current method of selecting justices accomplishes what attorneys and Kansas citizens want.
"We want justices selected on merit and the process by which they are selected to be as free from the political process and influence as reasonably possible,” he said.