Kansas conservatives advance bill on impeachment of judges

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Posted: Mar 10, 2016 3:51 PM
Kansas conservatives advance bill on impeachment of judges

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — A bill declaring that Kansas Supreme Court justices can be impeached for meddling too much in the state Legislature's business cleared its first big hurdle toward passage Thursday.

The Republican-dominated Senate Judiciary Committee approved the bill on a voice vote, sending it to the full chamber for debate. It's the latest in a series of measures from GOP conservatives in recent years that have put Kansas at the center of a national effort to remake state courts.

The bill supplements a provision of the state constitution that says Supreme Court justices can be impeached and removed from office for treason, bribery or "other high crimes and misdemeanors." The bill outlines a list of misconduct covered by the latter phrase, including attempting "to usurp the power" of the Legislature or executive branch of state government.

The committee rewrote the bill, with some supporters seeking to make the measure seem less of an attack on the state Supreme Court. But lawmakers are considering it amid widespread dissatisfaction among GOP conservatives with decisions in recent years overturning death sentences for convicted murderers and requiring lawmakers to boost spending on public schools.

"We have arrived at a point today in this country and this state where, specifically, Supreme Court justices have become kings, and there is no check," said Sen. Forrest Knox, a conservative Altoona Republican and one of the bill's 18 sponsors.

In other states, conservative groups have spent heavily in contested judicial elections, most recently in Arkansas.

But in Kansas, justices are appointed by the governor after a commission led by lawyers screens applicants and picks three finalists, with no role for legislators. Justices face "retention" elections every six years, remaining in office unless more than 50 percent of voters vote against them.

Four of Kansas' seven Supreme Court justices were appointed by Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, who served from 2003 to 2009, and two by her predecessor, Bill Graves, a moderate Republican. Only one was appointed by current Gov. Sam Brownback, a conservative Republican.

Conservatives are expected to push this year for Kansas voters in the November election to remove four justices — two Sebelius appointees and the two Graves appointees.

Sen. Greg Smith, an Overland Park Republican and another sponsor of the bill, said he has little faith in retention elections as a check on the court. No Kansas justice has ever been ousted.

Smith also argued that the bill wasn't an attack on the Supreme Court. At his urging, the committee added a similar list of specific grounds for impeachment for the governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and secretary of state.

"It has nothing to do with court cases," Smith said. "It is simply guidelines defining this term, 'high crimes and misdemeanors.'"

But GOP conservatives have pushed in recent years to eliminate the commission that screens applicants for Supreme Court vacancies and allow the governor to make the appointments directly, subject to Senate confirmation. The change would give the governor and lawmakers more control over the appointments.

A 2014 law stripped the high court of its power to appoint the chief trial-court judges in the state's 31 judicial districts, giving it to the local judges.

When one of the chief judges sued, GOP lawmakers last year passed another law saying the judiciary's entire budget would be nullified if the earlier policy were struck down by the courts. The Supreme Court invalidated it anyway, and lawmakers backed off their threat earlier this year.

"There's a pattern of an attempt to chip away at what I feel is the autonomy of three co-equal branches of government," said Sen. David Haley, a Kansas City Democrat who opposed the bill.

Also opposing the bill was Judiciary Committee Chairman Jeff King, even though the Independence Republican has frequently criticized the court and its rulings.

"I don't want impeachment proceedings to even be hinted at, that they might occur based on a decision that a justice makes in their official capacity," King said.

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