Kansans rely on the Kansas court system for fairness and justice under the rule of law. Because judges are the gatekeepers of the court system, it is imperative that judges acquire certain qualifications, including:
- Integrity: A judge should be honest and committed to the rule of law.
- Professional Competence: A judge should have extensive legal knowledge.
- Judicial Temperament: A judge should be neutral, respectful, and composed.
- Experience: A judge should have a strong record of excellence in the law.
- Commitment to Service: A judge should be committed to all aspects of the administration of justice.
How does the selection of justices and judges occur?
Kansas Supreme Court
Voters in Kansas chose the current system for selecting Kansas Supreme Court justices in 1958, on the heels of the infamous Kansas Triple Play scandal. That scandal involved three political maneuvers within the course of three days: First, after Kansas Governor Fred Hall lost reelection in 1956, his longtime friend and chief justice of the Kansas Supreme Court resigned. Second, Hall resigned his position as governor. And third, Hall’s lieutenant governor (in his sole official act) appointed Hall to the Kansas Supreme Court. More on the Kansas Triple Play is available from the Kansas Historical Society.
Kansans were outraged and subsequently adopted by constitutional amendment a new system for selecting justices. Under the system established in the Kansas Constitution, when a vacancy opens up on the Kansas Supreme Court, the nonpartisan Kansas Supreme Court Nominating Commission reviews applications and submits a list of three qualified candidates to the governor. To be considered as a candidate for judicial office, an applicant must be a licensed attorney in Kansas over the age of 30, and must have been active as a lawyer, judge, or teacher of law at an accredited law school for at least ten years.
The Supreme Court Nominating Commission has nine members—one lawyer and one non-lawyer from each of the state’s four congressional districts, plus an additional lawyer who serves as the commission’s chair. Lawyer members are elected by their peers (active Kansas attorneys), and non-lawyer members are appointed by the governor.
When the Commission completes its review of applicants, it selects the three most qualified nominees to the governor. The governor has 60 days to select a candidate from those three nominees.
There are seven justices of the Kansas Supreme Court. The most senior justice—the justice who has served longest among the seven—is the chief justice.
Court of Appeals
The 14 judges of the Kansas Court of Appeals are, like the Supreme Court justices, appointed by the governor. However, instead of choosing from a slate of candidates recommended by a nominating commission, the governor is free to nominate anyone he or she chooses—as long as the nominee is a licensed attorney in Kansas between the ages of 30 and 70, and has been active as a lawyer, judge, or teacher of law at an accredited law school for at least ten years. The governor’s nominee is then subject to confirmation by the Kansas Senate (K.S.A. 20-3020 et. seq.).
The Kansas Supreme Court selects the chief judge of the Kansas Court of Appeals and the chief judge of all 31 Kansas districts.
Depending on where in the state they serve, judges of the district court are selected either through a nominating commission process (like Supreme Court justices, but with commissions made up of local residents) or in elections by partisan ballot.
In districts where judges are selected through the nominating commission process, there is a district nominating commission made up of an equal number of lawyers selected by their peers and non-lawyers appointed by the board of county commissioners. A Supreme Court justice or a district court judge from another district chairs each district nominating commission.
In districts where district court judges are elected, judges are subject to the same primary and general election process as other candidates for elected office.
Whether selected through the nominating commission process or by ballot, district court judges must live in the district in which they serve. They also must have been a licensed lawyer in Kansas for at least five years and be younger than 75 at the time they are appointed or elected.
In addition to the selection process, Kansans also have the opportunity to hold Supreme Court justices, Court of Appeals judges, and appointed district court judges accountable for being fair and impartial and for protecting the rights afforded every Kansan under the Constitution, through retention votes. After serving one year on the bench, a justice or judge selected through one of these processes must stand for retention during the next general election. Kansas Supreme Court Justices must then stand for retention every six years, and Court of Appeals and district court judges must do so every four years.
A retention vote asks whether a particular justice or judge should be retained in his or her judicial office (by way of a yes/no vote). If a majority of voters oppose retention, the justice or judge is removed from office.
Elected district court judges serve four-year terms and can run for re-election as long as they remain eligible for the position.
Supreme Court justices and district court judges can no longer submit their names for retention if they are older than 75. Court of Appeals judges may sit for retention until the age of 70.